When you thought it couldn’t get worse, it got worse. And when you thought it was finally getting better, it got worse.
Such was the story of the first two periods of Michigan’s come-from-behind victory over Ohio State on Saturday – nothing went right. The more experienced Buckeyes controlled the play, dominated the transition game and would have run up the score if it weren’t for the outstanding play of Wolverines goaltender Noah Ruden.
But once the third period began, it was a whole different game. There was no fairytale story of an inspired speech by a coach or captain between periods. Instead, the Wolverines pointed to something surprisingly more tangible: a change in forechecking strategy.
Throughout the first two periods, Michigan used its typical 1-2-2 forechecking method, using one forward to pressure the Buckeyes as Ohio State tried to clear out of its own zone. But once the Buckeyes passed the first lines of the Wolverines’ defense, they were consistently breaking out into odd-man rushes and creating point-blank chances that Ruden fortunately managed to turn away – 95 percent of the time.
In an effort to minimize these chances, the Michigan coaching staff decided to shift the forecheck to the left-wing lock in the third period – a strategy made popular by the New Jersey Devils and the Detroit Red Wings during the mid-1990s. This method is based on a 2-3 formation, with the center and right wing applying pressure on the Buckeyes inside of Michigan’s offensive zone. The left wing and the two defensemen split the blue line into three zones so that they have more of the ice accounted for with less ice to cover individually.
And it worked like a charm.
Finally, the Wolverines pinned Ohio State down in its zone, sealing the puck in and creating second chances. The difference was apparent immediately when senior Brandon Kaleniecki knocked a puck past Buckeyes netminder Dave Caruso to tie the game at two just 12 seconds into the third period.
But the difference was even more pronounced in Michigan’s defensive zone. Even though the lock focuses on keeping the puck at the other end of the ice, the lack of Ohio State breakaways helped the Wolverines prevent the Buckeyes from taking the same easy shots, giving the Michigan offense a chance to stay in the game.
The change in formation saved the game and, perhaps, the season. And it makes perfect sense that it would. It can be easy to overreach your responsibilities and cover too much ice in the 1-2-2 formation. The lock relies on both teamwork – people staying in the right place – and personal responsibility – being the one line of defense in your personal zone. These two keys to the lock are also the keys to any potential Michigan success as the postseason approaches.
It’s simple and easy to implement – I once read that the lock “could be explained in a 30-second timeout.” Because many of the Wolverines are just discovering their respective niches in the college game, there have been many instances of players trying to do too much and being caught out of position. The simplicity of the lock was an easy way to provide the younger players with a concrete role each time the puck began moving out of the offensive zone, and it helped the Wolverines instantly re-gel as a team.
Having seen such a strong performance in the third period, hints of optimism still hang around in the corner of Michigan fans’ heads. Just look back to the teams that made the left wing lock famous: Jacques Lemaire’s Devils won the 1995 Stanley Cup, and Scotty Bowman’s Red Wings won three cups between 1997 and 2002 with the lock.
Of course, every team in the league will have received word of Michigan’s left-wing lock strategy by the time the playoffs roll around, but it might just be the ticket to postseason success for a young, maturing team.
Dowd is sick of referee Matt Shegos’s shenanigans. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.