Entering this weekend’s matchup against Lake Superior State, the Michigan hockey team holds the dubious title of worst defense in the CCHA.
In 22 appearances this season, the Wolverines have given up an abysmal 77 goals, or 3.50 goals per game. Alaska, the next worst team, defensively — which swept Michigan last weekend, allowing just five total goals — allows .8 fewer goals per game than the Wolverines. Michigan coach Red Berenson has continually stressed all season that failures in the defensive-zone coverage have led to too many easy goals against the Wolverines.
This week, Berenson chose a different tactic for fixing a failing defense. Michigan practiced a drill where the defending team — both forwards and defensemen — can only use their sticks upside down to attempt to stop the offense.
“We’re just trying to be in position,” Berenson said. “We’re not worrying about the defensive part of it without the puck — we’re worried about it with the puck. This way there’s no chance of them getting the puck.”
Though these drills aren’t out of the ordinary for Michigan, with less than half the season remaining, there is certainly an urgency for the defense to start performing. The unit was pegged as one of the nation’s best during the preseason, but since junior defenseman Jon Merrill suffered a vertebrae injury in an exhibition against Windsor, the unit has yet to fully recover.
Berenson has continuously expressed that the defensive struggles aren’t necessarily related to Merrill’s absence, but more tied to the defensive-zone miscues by forwards and defensemen alike. The drills that focus on coverage and playing without the puck are a way to fix simple problems like sticking with your man.
“You don’t have your stick, so you really have to be in the right place and have your hand on the guy, or be really close to him to make a play,” said senior forward A.J. Treais. “You can’t bail yourself out with a stick, so the focus is definitely on being in good position. … Anything like that where you put a higher focus on being in better position is definitely going to help us right now.”
POWER-PLAY PROBLEMS: If the defense was an issue against Alaska, the power play was equally problematic, if not more so. The unit finished the weekend scoring just once on 12 attempts. This continues a trend which currently has the Wolverines scoring just 12.9 percent of the time and coming in third-to-last in the conference.
Before Merrill was injured, he was slotted to play the point on the power play. During Merrill’s absence, Treais scored two goals and six assists on the year while mostly playing the point. Freshman defenseman Jacob Trouba, who recently came off of a gold-medal winning performance with the United States’ under-19 junior team in Russia, has also been a constant threat on the power play.
Trouba played a critical role for the U.S. power play and currently leads Michigan’s power-play unit with five goals this season. Now that Merrill is back in the lineup, Berenson said that he hasn’t completely decided how the rotation will be split up.
“I think (Merrill) is going to help our power play, but I can’t tell you we’re going to keep him on the same unit as Trouba,” Berenson said. “We might have each one of them anchor a different power-play unit. But Jonny will help our power play, no question. We just need to get his game sped up.”
Last year at the Under-19 World Championships, Merrill and Trouba played together for most of the tournament. Despite Trouba’s high-school standing at the time, the two played and built chemistry before Trouba’s arrival in Ann Arbor.
The success of both players will be paramount for the power play to break out of its current slump. Before Michigan started its downward spiral this season, the man advantage was an impetus behind early success. If the Wolverines hope to salvage any sort of a season, it’ll be that much more difficult without a successful power play.