With its year on life support, the Michigan hockey team may need its one constant – the penalty kill – to keep its season alive.
But it won’t be easy, especially with Northern Michigan looking to pull the plug this weekend coming into Yost with the CCHA’s best power play unit.
If the Wolverines want to erase the two-point lead the Wildcats hold over them in the standings, they will have to shut down an unusual extra-man attack. Northern puts two forwards on the goal line on opposite sides of the net, while the other forward stays in front of the goalie.
The style is abnormal, but undoubetdly successful. Northern Michigan scores on 22.7 percent of its power plays, by far the best in the conference. And the Wildcats carry momentum with them into this weekend’s series after converting on three-of-seven power play chances last weekend.
“It’s the same power play they had last year, but the personnel is getting older and better, and they’re moving the puck pretty well,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “We have the same power play, but we’re not as good at it.”
The Wolverines’ penalty kill, ranked seventh in the country, is charged with stopping Northern Michigan’s man-advantage. After being in the top three nationally for much of the season, the unit has dropped in recent weeks.
Michigan gave up three power play goals during last weekend’s sweep at the hands of Nebraska-Omaha. Most of the Mavericks’ power play goals weren’t typical style, occurring on the rush. But the penalty killers still claim responsibility.
“Maybe (we need to) be a little bit more patient when we forecheck,” junior forward Carl Hagelin said. “It should be an important thing this weekend. I think our in-zone PK is still good enough to shut a team down, so hopefully we’re going to do that this weekend.”
The penalty kill has struggled keeping conventional power play goals out of the net as well. The three power play goals given up last weekend added to a four-game stretch in which the unit is killing just 76 percent of power plays.
“Maybe we’re not committed to the PK,” Hagelin said. “Sometimes it could be just lucky bounces from their team. It’s probably a mix of a lot of different things.”
But if Berenson has his way, the struggling unit won’t be forced to decide the game.
The Wolverines have scored twice in their last 15 chances on the man-advantage, and the power play has failed to produce consistently all season. The coaching staff is still trying to mix and match an ideal group and has said they will tweak the unit for another time this weekend.
“You can’t make it the whole game, but we’ll have them prepared,” Berenson said. “Our special teams will match up pretty well against theirs on paper. But I hope it doesn’t come down to that because I don’t think we have as much momentum going right now as they might.”
To Berenson, the key to climbing out of seventh place in the conference – and possibly into third – with a sweep is good home-ice hockey, which to him, is five-on-five play.
“I don’t even want to be on the power play eight times,” Berenson said. “It takes away from the rest of your team and we’re probably not going to be that good if we get eight power plays. It’s just too much. I’d rather get into an honest, low-penalized, ‘Let’s play five-on-five, let’s see who the best team is’ game.”