Things couldn’t have gone better for the No. 5 Michigan hockey team this weekend: walking away with all six points and a legitimate chance at clinching the CCHA title.
But even after a 3-2 overtime win over Northern Michigan on Saturday, there was still one troubling aspect of Michigan’s play that could have serious consequences in Michigan’s post season hunt: turnovers.
Senior defenseman Greg Pateryn talked about the inability of the Wildcat defense to get good passes to their forwards.
But Pateryn may as well been talking about his own team, whose game against the Wildcats was fraught with defensive miscalculations.
In the second frame, sophomore defenseman Mac Bennett was cornered against the boards in the Wolverine zone. Northern Michigan freed up the puck, then fired a slapshot past fifth-year senior netminder Shawn Hunwick from the slot.
Luckily for Michigan, that was the only turnover to result in a Wildcat goal. But things got dangerously close as the game wound down.
With the score knotted at 2-2 with one minute left in the final frame, Northern Michigan controlled the puck in the Wolverines’ zone. Sophomore defenseman Jon Merrill made an attempt to clear by dishing it to junior defenseman Lee Moffie, who in turn handed it over to a Wildcat situated right in front Hunwick.
The puck went straight to Hunwick’s belly. But it was a sobering reminder of how costly errors in the defensive zone can be.
Though the Wolverines came out of the series on top, Michigan coach Red Berenson still thought the mistakes became too characteristic of Saturday’s game.
“It was a weekend of turnovers,” Berenson said. “Both goalies made some great saves (and) both teams were lucky at times. We were lucky they didn’t score more.”
Berenson didn’t think it had anything to do with the new defensive pairings that came as a result of sophomore defenseman Kevin Clare’s injury he sustained the night before. The steadfast duo of Moffie and Merrill was split up and each was matched with a freshmen — Brennan Serville and Mike Chiasson, respectively.
In fact, Berenson spread the blame among the whole team — except Hunwick, that is, who was recognized as being the only reason that turnovers weren’t more detrimental.
According to Berenson, the forwards were just as much to blame.
Take junior forward Lindsay Sparks, for example, who has been working the last couple of months to find his way back into the lineup and prove to Berenson he’s not a defensive liability.
Sparks struggled to do that in this series, though.
His turnovers weren’t as disastrous as Moffie’s, but his inconsistency handling the puck in the neutral zone didn’t do the Wolverines any favors, especially when Michigan was hanging on to a one-goal lead towards the beginning of the second stanza.
The Wildcats were no saints, either. Right before regulation ended, forward Reed Seckel gave up the puck in front of Northern Michigan’s goal to give the Wolverines one last chance to score before entering overtime.
But according to Berenson, the Wildcats’ poise made up for their defensive mistakes.
“(Northern Michigan) played hard-checking hockey,” Berenson said. “I thought we were careless with the puck and they forced turnovers.”
The only way for Michigan to respond was to hit back harder, and as usual, Pateryn assumed the role of instigator.
The hard hits worked for the Wolverines. As Northern Michigan brought the puck down toward Hunwick, Pateryn slammed his upper-body into Stephan Vigier, sending the Wildcat sprawling face first across the ice.
It happened again a couple minutes later, when he decked another player into the glass from the point.
All in a day’s work for Pateryn — it’s because that’s the only truly effective way he knows how to cut down defensive slip-ups.
“That’s just work ethic, winning battles and having support down low,” Pateryn said. “There were times we did it really well, other times we struggled, maybe at the end of a shift.”
Correction appended: A previous version of this story mistakenly attributed the turnover that resulted in a goal to junior defenseman Lee Moffie. It was sophomore defenseman Mac Bennett