Whether it is killing off two and a half minutes of a five-on-three to change the game against Michigan Tech, scoring a shorthanded goal to put away Minnesota, scoring another one the following night to take the lead for good against No. 4 Wisconsin, or taking a civil gathering of 6,921 people at Yost and turning the place into a frenzy without even lighting the lamp, Michigan coach Red Berenson’s system seems to be working.
“It”, is the penalty kill. The unit kills off penalties at an 89 percent success rate, just two tenths of a point off of its all time mark set in 2002-2003 and good enough for third in the country. Michigan’s penalty killers have been perfect in 12 games this season, including a streak of 25 straight during which it won five of six games during that stretch.
Much of that has to do with the personnel. As Jed Ortmeyer and Dwight Helminen paced the record-setting unit seven years ago, sophomore Luke Glendening and junior Carl Hagelin do the same for the current bunch of penalty killers.
“We’ve identified some players that have really embraced the role,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “It’s not a glamorous role, it doesn’t show up on the stats. You might be our best penalty killer but someone else is getting all the attention because he’s our leading scorer. In the mean time, you might be more important than he is.”
Also important to success is practice, something the Wolverines’ penalty kill unit has had a lot of this season. The Wolverines are ninth in the country in penalty minutes and have had to kill off four major penalties so far this season.
“Our goal at the start of the year is to be the least penalized team,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “We can play a physical game but you don’t be penalized. … Penalties are like goals, they’re important parts of the game.”
Despite being unhappy about the penalties, it has provided Michigan with a chance to change the momentum of the game.
The coaching staff teaches an aggressive and unusual system: players attack the opposing athletes on the outskirts of the zone even if they have strong possession.
The method leads to increased turnovers and short-handed opportunities, but increases the chance that Michigan players end up out of position in their own zone. Still, because they see the penalty kill as an opportunity to change the game, the coaching staff is willing to take that risk.
They see this gambling strategy as a necessary risk, allowing the penalty kill a chance to steal momentum.
“It’s hard to play a passive system and we don’t do that, fortunately,” Glendening said. “It’s fun to go out there and you’re really doing your best to work hard. That’s kind of our PK’s theme, is hard work is what is going to do it for us.”
That effort has changed the tone of games all season, culminating with its performance in the second period last Saturday against Western Michigan.
The Yost crowd collectively held its breath. With a 3-1 lead Michigan faced a five-on-three disadvantage. Of the thirteen goals given up this season by the penalty kill, six have come with two men down. The Wolverines needed to kill the penalties to save the game.
Western Michigan set up the power play and had a goal – but senior Chris Summers made it impossible for the Broncos to come any closer. With goaltender Bryan Hogan on the other side of the net, Summers broke up a play in the slot and then battled to chip the puck off the glass and out of the zone as fans exhaled.
Glendening found the puck and drove to the net with a shot that almost trickled past Western’s Riley Gill. During the play, those exhales turned into screams and a standing ovation – the loudest Yost has been all season.
“Penalties can kind of work in your favor if you kill them,” Summers said after the game. “Especially when you have 7,000 people behind you screaming and yelling, so that was a big boost for our team. I think that was a definite turning point in the game.”