KALAMAZOO — Entering this season, the strength of the Michigan hockey team was expected to be its defense.
Back then, junior defenseman Jon Merrill hadn’t been injured, and freshman defenseman Jacob Trouba was ready to arrive on campus and bolster the unit.
Well, it wasn’t the strength it had the potential to be. And as recently as a few weeks ago, the team ranked third to last in the country in goals allowed per game, ahead of only Alabama-Huntsville and then-winless Sacred Heart.
Though some of that can certainly be attributed to previously poor goaltending, there’s been an undeniable turnaround by the defense. The blue liners played one of their best games yet in Saturday’s series-clinching 5-1 win over Western Michigan.
Friday night belonged to Jacob Trouba, who has been the most consistent piece to the blue line all year.
The freshman defenseman rocketed two shots past usually trusty Western Michigan netminder Frank Slubowski, but an interesting sideshow has developed outside of Trouba’s spotlight.
Not only has the top defensive pair of Trouba and junior Mac Bennett been performing up to the high preseason expectations, but senior Lee Moffie and Merrill have made Michigan’s top-four defensemen begin to look as formidable as any other quartet in the country.
Friday night, Moffie held down the defensive zone, making the safe passes around freshman goalie Steve Racine that have eluded the alternate captain this season. He was also noticeably more physical. On one particular play, he bumped Western Michigan’s Chase Balisy off the puck, preventing the Broncos from potentially tying the game late in the third period.
Moffie said that Friday was one of his best all-around defensive efforts of the season.
“I knew it had to be,” he said. “We have enough scoring on our team right now, and I think the focus of our team has to be defense. All our defensemen have kind of taken that role.”
According to Michigan coach Red Berenson, it’s not only Moffie who’s playing the best hockey of his season — it’s all of the team’s seniors.
“That’s what you need,” Berenson said. “Moffie’s had a tough season, but he’s really come on strong recently.”
Though Moffie’s efforts didn’t show up in the box score Friday, they contributed to an impressive Michigan checking game. Saturday, however, he received an assist for his beautiful up-ice pass to senior forward Kevin Lynch, who proceeded to score the game’s first goal, setting the tone for the comfortable win.
On Saturday, it was Merrill’s turn to contribute on both ends. After missing the first half of the season for the second straight year — last year due to suspension and this year because of injury — Merrill has caught fire at the right time and matches the inherent physicality of Trouba at times, like Saturday.
“I thought Jonny played really well,” said senior captain A.J. Treais. “He made some really smart plays, took hits to make plays. He’s been doing that all year, but I thought he had an extra-special game today.”
Merrill finished with the assist on Lynch’s goal, a plus-one rating, three shots on goal and two blocked shots. He embodied a new mindset for the defense, one that was absent in the playoff opener against Northern Michigan on March 8, but has been on display ever since. To Berenson, the difference is desperation.
For Moffie, it’s about doing whatever it takes to continue eliminating the miscues that proved costly earlier in the season. Those mistakes were put under a microscope because of the poor play of the goalies. Now that Racine is playing well between the pipes, the defense seems more willing to absorb shots and protect the goalie.
“We’re absolutely willing to do whatever it takes not to let in a goal,” said senior defenseman Lee Moffie about the defense holding a late one-goal lead. “You’re getting in front of every shot, you’re diving, you’re desperate. More importantly, you’re playing sound defense.”
Correction Appended: An earlier edition of this story incorrectly identified the primary assist on Lynch’s goal.