With a team of hard-hitting players, Michigan knew its penalty-killing unit would get a workout this past weekend.
And Saturday night, when the Wolverines were a man down for more than 13 minutes, Northern Michigan scored two of its three goals.
But even including Saturday’s slipups, the Wolverines’ penalty-killing unit is statistically stronger than last season’s. Through four games last year, Michigan allowed five power-play goals in 33 man-down situations. This year, opponents are just 2-for-20. Before allowing its first power-play goal of the season during Saturday’s first period, Michigan’s penalty-killing unit had held opponents scoreless in 14 straight attempts.
Whether it was because of the team’s youth or the intensity of the CCHA opener, penalties constantly disrupted the flow of this weekend’s contests.
Friday night, Northern Michigan’s penalty-killing unit was the one at work, and senior Chad Kolarik might as well have foreshadowed his own team’s struggle with penalties the following night while describing the Wildcats’ play.
“Not staying out of the box (was) a tough sign for them,” Kolarik said after Friday’s game. “When your best players have to penalty kill, they’re working so hard and they’re battling through it. . I think that gets to you later in the game.”
For a 6:41 stretch in the middle of Saturday’s first period, the Wolverines were shorthanded. And late in the period, Michigan’s power-play unit gave up its first goal of the season on a slapshot one-timer.
The Wolverines successfully killed three more penalties before giving up their second power-play goal, a shot that went between two Michigan players’ legs before being redirected to tie the game with 41 seconds left.
“I think our penalty killing was disappointed to give up their first goal against and then another,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “For parts of the game, we were doing well, and then we stumbled at the end.”
Combined with Northern Michigan penalties that gave Michigan the man advantage, the Wolverines found themselves on the penalty kill or the power play for almost 22 minutes of Saturday’s game.
Berenson said the limited time available to play a four-line game got his team “out of sync” during both games. Freshman Matt Rust called playing a special-teams game “choppy.”
“A lot of guys on our team had to stay focused with power play and penalty kill playing for probably 50 percent of the game (Saturday),” junior defenseman Mark Mitera said. “It definitely changed the pace of the game up a little bit, with the same guys kind of getting out there or sitting on the bench for awhile.”
The Wolverines’ constant penalty killing helped Northern Michigan tally more than twice as many shots as Michigan through two periods and marked the first time this season the Wolverines have been outshot.
The two goals allowed Saturday likely mean that the players on the penalty-killing unit aren’t set – but after an otherwise strong start to the season, their strategy with a man down will remain similar.
“It’s mostly just hard work,” senior captain Kevin Porter said. “Our guys are just working hard and putting pressure on their guys to cough up the puck so they don’t have time to make many plays. It’s been working well so far.”