It’s been a long time coming, but Michigan finally did it – a win by playing the ultimate team game.
So many times during the Wolverines’ funk – which has lasted since early December – the team hasn’t played on the same page. Passes went awry, the forwards didn’t cover the defenseman’s backs, the defense couldn’t keep the puck in the offensive zone – the list of gaffes was endless.
But during Saturday night’s playoff game against Ferris State, the Wolverines looked up for their teammates rather than putting their heads down and trying to win the series on their own. And with the depth of talent on Michigan’s roster, once the Wolverines start playing together, it can be downright scary for opponents.
All three of Michigan’s goals Saturday were the result of playing heads up hockey. Freshman Jack Johnson’s game-winning goal came off of a pass from junior T.J. Hensick, giving him a wide-open shot on Bulldogs’ goaltender Mitch O’Keefe. In recent months, both Johnson and Hensick helped to keep the Wolverines afloat with a perpetual slideshow of their individual talents. They have a tendency to try to win games solo, but once Hensick looked up and saw Johnson streaking down the ice to his left, his “eyes lit up,” and he fed the defenseman for his 10th goal of the season and Hensick’s 34th assist.
Even the power play finally clicked with the Wolverines’ newfound sense of team. Looking back at the two earlier goals, both scored on the power play, they were created by pinpoint passing and hustle in front of the net. It was the first time in 2006 that I actually had hope for the Wolverines’ power play success.
But this teamwork extends beyond the offensive end of the ice. One of Michigan’s biggest problems has been covering defensemen when they pinch into the offensive zone. Going against Ferris State, the Wolverines had to make sure this wouldn’t happen, as the Bulldogs are known for capitalizing on quick transition breakaways.
Even though there was a brief letdown in the transition defense when Ferris State’s Adam Miller skated in on Michigan goaltender Noah Ruden all alone, the Wolverines were bailed out by Ruden’s greatest – or perhaps luckiest – save. After that opportunity, the Wolverines stuck together to prevent the Bulldogs from tying the game and safely allowed Johnson to pinch in and score the game-winning goal.
As Michigan moves into CCHA Championship weekend at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, this type of team game will become even more crucial. On Friday, the Wolverines will face Michigan State. This season, Michigan failed to beat the Spartans, going 0-1-3 in their four contests. One of the Wolverine’s toughest struggles against their top rival has been getting clean shots through to Michigan State netminder Jeff Lerg. In order to do this, Michigan needs heads-up play and on-target passing.
And if Michigan knocks off Michigan State for the first time this year on Friday, it will likely face Miami, another team which it has failed to beat, in the CCHA Championship game.
The Wolverines won’t have their typical home crowd to egg them on next weekend, but it was refreshing to see how excited the players were about playing such a great team game. For the first time in months, they looked truly re-energized and raring to go for the next game – a good sign considering their 2-3-3 record against the other three CCHA semifinalists.
– Dowd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The last time the Michigan hockey team swept a weekend series:
– The Michigan basketball team was 7-0 and a lock for the NCAA Tournament.
– Jim Herrmann was still the defensive coordinator for the football team.
– Skier Bode Miller had as many medals as he does now.
– The Detroit Pistons were on pace to win 72 games.
– Billy Sauer and Tyler Swystun were still 17 years old.