KALAMAZOO – Chad Kolarik and Kevin Porter are putting up the kind of numbers most coaches only dream about.
And the Michigan hockey team’s opponents finally seem to be figuring that out.
Several times in the Wolverines’ 5-1 win at Western Michigan Saturday night, Bronco forwards crashed down in their own zone to help their defensemen. That left Michigan’s blueliners alone at the top of the zone while the Wolverine forwards fought a 5-on-3 disadvantage down low.
Western Michigan experimented with this aggressive style of defense partly because the Wolverines have tallied less-than-spectacular offensive numbers from the blueline so far this season.
Coming into last weekend, defensemen had accounted for just three goals all season. At this point last year, Michigan defensemen had scored more than three times that many.
With so much of the Broncos’ concentration focused on slowing down seniors Porter and Kolarik – an effort that proved fruitless as the duo tallied six total goals in two games against Western Michigan – the Michigan defensemen were had plenty of wide-open looks at the net.
And they didn’t pass up the chance to contribute.
Friday, Kevin Quick became the first of Michigan four freshman defensemen to notch a goal this season. Kolarik, having trouble breaking the Bronco pressure, dished the puck to Quick, who had jumped up higher in the zone than usual. He hesitated slightly, looked to pass then ripped a shot past Western Michigan goalie Riley Gill.
Quick followed up his first-career goal with another one Saturday. By the end of the weekend, the Wolverine defenders doubled their season-long goal output. Sophomore Chris Summers also lit the lamp Friday.
“During our three-on-three rushes in practice, we’re supposed to curl back and hit the weakside ‘D’ coming in late,” Kolarik said. “Quick had a goal like that. It’s a textbook play. We’ve been working on it for a long time now.”
The defenders adapted to the Bronco pressure Saturday, playing more aggressively on offense. Several times, they came as far as the crease to help the attack. While it wasn’t as effective on the stat sheet – Michigan defenders tallied just one goal – it gave Kolarik and the rest of the offense more support down low.
Kolarik used the help to record a career-high four goals, a feat that propelled him to CCHA Offensive Player of the Week honors.
“We’re trying to get our ‘D’ to join the rush more,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “Not to lead the rush, but to join the rush, so that if the forwards run into a lot of resistance, they can move it back to the ‘D.’ “
Although having the defenders play closer to the net helped create scoring chances for the Wolverines, it also opened things up a little in the other direction.
Three times when the Michigan defense jumped deeper into the Western Michigan zone, the Broncos stole the puck, leaving goaltender Billy Sauer between the net and an easy scoring chance for Western Michigan.
Fortunately for the Wolverines, Sauer shut down each breakaway attempt. Berenson said the best way to defend against those breakaways is smarter puck handling.
“They had nothing to do with the defensemen coming up,” Berenson said. “But they’ve got to trust that the forward’s going to do the right thing with the puck, and if he’s not sure, he should just stay back.”
If the production from Kolarik and Porter slows down in the coming weeks – emphasis on the “if” – the Wolverines have found a solid offensive solution. To paraphrase the old adage, the best offense is a result of good defense.