When Yost Ice Arena public address announcer Scott Spooner stated his usual, “Lake Superior State returns to full strength” on Saturday night, I half expected the Michigan student section to give the Lakers a standing ovation.
This weekend, Michigan went an abysmal 0-for-8 on the power play and managed just eight total shots on those chances.
No goals? Eight shots? Isn’t this the Michigan team that led the nation in power play efficiency through the first half of the season?
Up until Jan. 2, the Wolverines sat atop the nation, converting 26.1 percent of their chances – almost two-percent better than any other team in the country.
But since the New Year, Michigan has gone just 6-for-71 with a man advantage, good for a whopping 8.4-percent conversion rate. It’s become so bad that I find myself wishing the referees wouldn’t call penalties on opposing teams.
In Saturday night’s game, Michigan notched four even-strength goals in the first period, but cooled off significantly after that. When asked what the difference was for the offense between the first versus the second and third periods, captain Andrew Ebbett pointed to the power play, calling it a momentum-killer.
And he was absolutely right. For some completely inexplicable reason, Michigan fared significantly better during five-on-five play. It created much better chances and prevented Lake Superior State from closing the gap any further after the Lakers’ two-goal outburst at the end of the first period.
So if the Wolverines could work the puck for goals with five Lakers on the ice, why not four?
Coach Red Berenson used a feather analogy during his postgame press conference. He described his team as reaching for it and missing, reaching again and missing. And once it finally catches that feather, Berenson said, it’s so light and easy that everyone will wonder why the Wolverines couldn’t get it sooner.
Of course, hindsight will be 20-20, but what can the Wolverines do in the meantime?
Alternate captain Matt Hunwick believes the key lies in getting the puck down into the opponents’ zone. He thinks that if Michigan can dump the puck into the zone, its speed will give the team a chance to set up their power play.
But why the Wolverines can’t seem to get it into the zone to begin with boggles my mind. During the early parts of the season, Michigan was easily able to set up its power play, almost regardless of the opponent. And while I know teams watch film and learn Michigan’s set plays, I want to believe that the Wolverines’ talent should be enough to win battles for the puck in the offensive zone.
Ebbett and Hunwick both said that the team will focus on the power play during this week’s practices before it heads to Omaha next weekend. Whether or not these practices can help the power play unit congeal might be a determining factor in how the CCHA playoff race sorts itself out.
Nebraska-Omaha will certainly be out for blood next weekend – the Mavericks sit in a fourth-place tie in the league standings. That fourth spot is key, since the top four teams get a first-round bye and home-ice advantage in the second round of the CCHA playoffs. Should Nebraska-Omaha and Lake Superior State falter this weekend, Ferris State might have a chance to steal the fourth spot in their home-and-home with the Wolverines during the following weekend.
If the Wolverines can manage to slot in some power play goals, they have a very good chance to take six or eight points from the upcoming weekend sets with Nebraska-Omaha and Ferris State and secure their second-place spot.
Sitting just three points above the Lakers and Mavericks, those points might be the difference between a first-round bye and a first-round series.
James V. Dowd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.