The simple idea of starting in goal for the No. 8 Michigan hockey team has kept freshman Billy Sauer awake at night. One can only imagine the extra stress that came from spending more than 25 minutes on the penalty kill during this weekend’s series with Quinnipiac.
But Sauer was relieved when his teammates shut down 14 of the Bobcats’ 16 power plays.
“I’m definitely pleased with our penalty kill,” Sauer said. “I don’t think our defense could block more shots. We’re definitely doing great in the department and our hitting is great.”
After the Wolverines’ power play went 1-for-10 in last weekend’s exhibition game against Toronto, coach Red Berenson had his team working on special teams – both power play and penalty kill – all week long. Senior captain Andrew Ebbett said the key to the penalty kill success was keeping attackers out of the high-percentage scoring zone between the faceoff circles.
“We just try to make them work around the boards all they want,” Ebbett said. “As long as they don’t get any shots from good angles. If they get the puck in the middle, we want to block the shots. I think we did a good job not letting them get any shots from the slot or at the back door.”
During the early parts of this season, a strong penalty kill will be essential for Michigan as the team’s 11 freshmen adjust to college hockey’s strict officiating. During Saturday night’s game, freshmen accounted for 18 of Michigan’s 22 penalty minutes.
“I think it’s just a matter of getting used to the refs right now,” Ebbett said. “Obviously they are cracking down in the first couple of weeks. For the first month there will probably be penalties like you saw this weekend. Freshmen are just getting used to playing at this level, it’s a little quicker than juniors.”
Sauer also got help in earning his victory at the other end of the ice. When Michigan was on the power play, it was significantly more successful than it was during last weekend’s meager performance against Toronto. During the Toronto game, Michigan took 27 shots with a man advantage, but managed to put just one in, when sophomore Chad Kolarik knocked the puck home from the back door.
After working on establishing a power play in practice this week, the Wolverines took just 19 shots on their 17 power plays during the Quinnipiac series. But this time around, the shots were more carefully selected and resulted in three goals.
“We’re getting there slowly,” alternate captain T.J. Hensick said. “I think the more we work on it in practice and the more we get the chemistry down, things will get better. It was definitely improved from last week to this week but we still have a lot to do.”
Hensick and his power play linemates clicked into top form this weekend, notching all three of the Wolverines’ power-play scores. All three of the skaters on Hensick’s line – himself, Kolarik and sophomore Kevin Porter – earned a point on the power play during the series. Defenseman Matt Hunwick, a defenseman, scored two of his three Saturday goals with a man advantage.
Even though defenseman Jack Johnson and Hunwick combined for five power-play points in the series, they could have notched several more. Many times the pair, as well as Michigan’s other defensive pairings, tended to look for an extra pass rather than a shot, perhaps limiting their chances to score.
“Sometimes we are too patient,” Hensick said. “Sometimes we just need to get shots on net from the point to create things. It forces them to come out and play our defenders so we can get low. That can create weaker shots like rebounds or deflections, but it depends on the situation.”