You can’t teach sacrifice in hockey.
It’s nearly impossible to show a method practical for sacrificing the body, but it can be manifested when a team blocks shots.
In the Michigan hockey team’s practice on Tuesday, Michigan coach Red Berenson stood by his forwards on the ice, feeding pucks to a lone defenseman acting as a shooter. He provoked the forwards to get down on a knee, forcing the shooter to change the angle of his shot.
The 73-year-old coach skated up and demonstrated how to hold the stick and what angle to take. The drill, simplistic and practical, is one by which the Wolverines are learning the concept of sacrificing.
But all of the aspects Michigan is dominating on the stat sheet during it’s eight-game unbeaten streak — scoring more than four goals per game, allowing two and killing off all but two penalties in eight games — they haven’t dominated the number of blocked shots.
“I think we could do a better job of blocking shots,” Berenson said. “Our team, still, is not a strong shot-blocking team. We have players that are doing good jobs in games, but it’s not enough — it’s a work in progress.”
The Wolverines blocked more shots than Western Michigan just once this weekend in their sweep — the first time they have finished with more blocks in a conference tournament game.
Even on the season, Michigan has blocked 474 shots, while its opponents have combined for 571 blocks.
It will be even more important to make the sacrifice when the team takes on Miami (Ohio), whose defense has blocked 583 shots this season and ranks second in the nation with 1.62 goals allowed.
But the evidence isn’t in the number of shots blocked, and the defense doesn’t necessarily agree with their coach. The number of goals allowed has decreased since the Wolverines traveled to Columbus, and most importantly, started winning.
“I think one thing we’ve really been good at lately is just limiting their shots in general,” said junior defenseman Mac Bennett, who has 36 blocked shots this season. “Getting in front of pucks is huge because that means they’re not getting to the net.
“It means that guys are willing to sacrifice their body for the team.”
The score sheet doesn’t keep track of how many shots are altered, but it does keep track of how many shots are taken.
Against its two CCHA playoff opponents, Northern Michigan and Western Michigan, Michigan has allowed no more than 28 shots in a game. The Wolverines held the Broncos to just 18 shots in Friday’s first game of their sweep.
The Wolverines were sparing their bodies to force awkward shots from the outside. It’s a mentality that lacked earlier in the season and the sacrifices made the difference in the weekend sweep of Western Michigan.
Midway through the second period of Saturday night’s 5-1 win in the CCHA quarterfinal, the Broncos attempted their comeback by pressuring Michigan into its zone.
But as Western Michigan wound up and fired shot after shot, there was sophomore forward Andrew Sinelli dropping down on one knee, lowering his stick to block a slapshot from the blue line. Junior forward Derek DeBlois lay on his stomach to block a shot, and junior defenseman Jon Merrill skated between the net and the incoming puck.
When the Wolverines play in the CCHA semifinals at Joe Louis Arena this Saturday for the 24th consecutive time, they’ll need to continue their strong trend of doing the gritty work. The stuff that doesn’t always show up on the stat sheet.
“They’re playing great,” said freshman goaltender Steve Racine of the defense. “They’re sacrificing their bodies, doing whatever to prevent goals and help me out.
“It’s a ton (of confidence gained) that they’re willing to do whatever it takes.”
Added Bennett: “It’s playoffs, so every game counts. You can’t afford to take a night off. We have to come to play and have to be ready to win.”
For a team as desperate as the Wolverines, it might not be necessary to teach sacrifice. It’s instinctive.