Ask Michigan coach Red Berenson about Lefty Smith — the father of the Notre Dame hockey program — and he’ll speak like he’s known Smith since birth. Though Smith passed away earlier this month, Berenson’s recounting of his vibrant memories of the man who brought hockey back to South Bend makes you feel as if you knew him.
Though 25 years have passed since Smith’s time at the helm of the program, his name hasn’t left it. He served Notre Dame diligently as the facility manager of the arena until mere weeks before his death — a father figure caring deeply for the brand-new rink that bears his name. Nobody dared tell Smith to retire.
Today, the Notre Dame program starkly contrasts the one he started. No longer is it housed in a shoddy multipurpose venue, which Berenson said was a “detriment” for the Fighting Irish. In its stead sits the newest arena in college hockey, a gem of a building where the Wolverines will be tasked with winning two tough games this weekend.
“When we watch tape, we see the inside of the (arena),” Berenson said. “It looks like a nice rink — I’ve heard it’s really nice. Good for them, it’s about time.”
Within its confines plays the CCHA’s best power-play unit. And as the current state of the Notre Dame program contrasts its humble roots, the Fighting Irish man advantage makes the Michigan power play look even more abysmal. Since the Wolverines capitalize just 10 percent of the time, there’s no question which team needs to stay out of the box.
Berenson always stresses that special teams can decide a critical road series. The trip to South Bend should be no exception.
“They play an aggressive style,” Berenson said. “They take penalties. That’s how they play. Hopefully, we can make them pay.”
The Wolverines haven’t been making any teams pay for their trips to the box lately. And though Berenson says his special teams units are “improving,” Michigan hasn’t notched a power-play tally in the first two series of 2012. But with some significantly improved attacking-zone passing, it doesn’t feel as far away as it once did.
When the Wolverines are shorthanded — something Berenson wants to limit to two or three times per game — they would be happy to continue exactly what they did on their Ohio swing. In the Michigan sweep, the Buckeyes had eight opportunities and scored just once, their lone goal of the weekend.
“We can’t take six or seven penalties in a game,” Berenson said. “That’s what we were doing in the early part of the season. We want to get in an honest game and … hopefully, we can handle that.”
The penalty-kill unit relies significantly on its senior leaders, who are expected to get the puck out of danger — and fast.
“We did a much better job (against Ohio State),” said senior defenseman Greg Pateryn. “The penalty kill’s an opportunity for us to get some momentum in the game and take it away from them.”
For him, it’s all about the positioning of sticks and of bodies. Pateryn’s never been afraid to end up black-and-blue, so long as a passing or shooting lane is erased.
“Winning these games isn’t going to feel good,” Pateryn said. “You’re going to get hit with shots, hit with sticks, bodies, everything. It’s going to be a grind every single night.”
And that grind is notoriously more difficult away from Yost Ice Arena. Berenson says it takes confidence and leadership to win on the road. But major road games have a tendency to build on each other, which can either propel a team up the standings or bury it. Berenson couldn’t be more thankful it became the former for the Wolverines.
“I thought we started to build at Alaska, and then we got better at Michigan State, and we’re better now,” Berenson said. “It’s not one big thing (that causes road success), it’s a lot of little things.”
By continuing to build on those little things, whether it’s sacrificing the body in the name of penalty killing or avoiding a needless penalty, Michigan could hold the trump card in South Bend.
Berenson will gaze around the Lefty Smith Rink as he shuffles to the bench this weekend. He won’t mind his players doing the same — as long as it’s not from the penalty box.