MARQUETTE — The Michigan hockey team traveled to Northern Michigan for its two-game series against the Wildcats having just six healthy, eligible defensemen to work with.
The Wolverines left just as they did last season, bearers of just two of six possible CCHA points after Northern Michigan won Saturday’s finale.
For Michigan, it was day late, defenseman short.
The defensive depth issue turned quickly into a full-fledged emergency in the series opener when freshman standout Jacob Trouba received a game-misconduct penalty for an open-ice hit on Northern Michigan’s Reed Seckel.
As a result, Trouba was forced to sit out the series finale, leaving the Wolverines with just five true defensemen in their lineup, though senior forward Jeff Rohrkemper did dress and skated alongside Kevin Clare on the blue line.
As for Seckel, who appeared seriously injured after Trouba’s misconduct penalty? He was back in the lineup on Saturday and responded by scoring twice in Northern Michigan’s 4-3 win in the series finale, doubling his prior total for the season.
Trouba’s absence, along with that of defensemen Brennan Serville (“facial concussion,” according to Berenson) and Jon Merrill (cracked seventh vertebrae), took their tolls on the Wolverines in the loss.
“It’s different,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson of playing without several of his top defensemen. “There’s no question. But that’s no excuse.”
Instead of focusing on what his team was missing in the loss, Berenson chose to point out how the Wolverines could’ve patched up some of those holes.
And it starts up front.
On far too many occasions in the loss, Michigan’s forwards allowed Northern Michigan skaters to sneak through its porous defense. Both of the Wildcats’ first two goals came after 5-on-5 play in the Wolverines’ own zone.
And both times, a different Michigan forward lost sight of his man. The puck ended up in the net before the Wolverines could maneuver back into position.
In fact, the lone forward to earn Berenson’s praise after the game was senior Jeff Rohrkemper — a scratch from Friday night’s game, but thrust into the lineup on defense Saturday to replace Trouba, alongside junior Kevin Clare. Berenson said it’s the only time he can remember Rohrkemper playing defense for Michigan.
Total relief isn’t coming for the battered defensive corps. Merrill is still weeks, probably months, away from being ready to return. Serville, though, skated this weekend in Ann Arbor and could be ready for this weekend’s series against Michigan State. And unless the CCHA passes down a suspension for Trouba’s hit, he’ll return to the lineup Friday.
Junior defenseman Mac Bennett believes the team needs to make do with what it has for now.
“I don’t think it should make a difference,” Bennett said of the stockpiling absent defensemen. “We just got to come in with the mentality that we’re going to shut teams down.”
The onus to play responsible on defense then falls to others, like the forwards, and defensemen who lack experience at Michigan.
Take sophomore defenseman Mike Szuma for example. Last year, Szuma struggled to see the ice, playing in just two of the Wolverines’ 41 games. This season, Szuma isn’t just cracking the lineup for Michigan — he’s expected to make significant contributions.
Saturday night, Szuma found himself working from the blue line to build a Michigan rally as time wound down. A year ago, he’d have been at the end of the bench come crunch time.
Consider it a sign of the times for Michigan. Injuries are very much a part of the game, but the response is what determines their impact. And the Wolverines responded to the adversity on Saturday by missing assignments in their own zone, creating easy goals for the opposition.