Even though he had a three-point weekend that included Saturday night’s unbelievable game-winning goal, scored as he was falling down, Aaron Palushaj’s mind was somewhere else after the Michigan hockey team’s sweep of St. Lawrence.
As he left the ice after the Wolverines’ 5-3 victory Saturday, the sophomore forward compared the power-play unit’s opening-weekend performance with that from last year’s Ice Breaker Invitational against Boston College and Minnesota. Michigan’s extra-man attack went scoreless in nine chances then, and this year’s squad converted just once in 18 man advantages in two games against the Saints.
Off-season rust is usually the reason good teams struggle to convert scoring opportunities early in the season.
Take, for instance, the debuts of last season’s other three Frozen Four participants: Boston College, Notre Dame and North Dakota. In four games this weekend, the teams tallied just three power-play goals on a combined 31 opportunities.
“It’s not going to click right away,” Palushaj said after Saturday’s game. “But towards the end of the second and third periods, I thought we had a lot of chances.”
With nine seconds left in Saturday’s contest, junior forward Brian Lebler finally capitalized on a man-advantage opportunity. Lebler charged through the slot and beat freshman goalie Robby Moss glove side after receiving a spot-on centering pass from freshman forward Robbie Czarnik. The one-timer put the exclamation point on a wild third period that featured six goals.
Last year, Michigan’s first line of Kevin Porter, Chad Kolarik and Max Pacioretty registered 30 of the Wolverines’ 47 power-play goals. Now, the trio is gone. That the goal was scored by Lebler, who usually plays on the third or fourth line, illustrates the importance of having power-play options throughout the depth chart.
“Everybody’s capable of scoring,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said Friday. “You just need the right chance.”
Getting special teams scoring from unlikely sources is a great luxury. But Michigan’s primary focus will be on how the Wolverines’ most potent weapons can carry a power-play attack that converted at a 20.5-percent clip last season, good for 12th in the nation. Last year’s line of Palushaj and sophomore forwards Carl Hagelin and Matt Rust is reunited. And that line, especially on the man advantage, could be deadly.
“Playing with Carl and Palushaj last year for five, six months, we definitely had some chemistry coming into the (first) game,” Rust said Friday. “It’s nice. (Hagelin’s) got so much speed. He’s so easy to play with. He works so hard. So he definitely added a lot to mine and Palushaj’s game.”
Berenson labeled the extra-man attack “a work in progress.” And while the team will highlight a number of elements this week in practice, Rust gave an indication Friday of his biggest concern.
“We had a lot of (power-play) chances,” Rust said. “Sometimes, the bounces go in. Sometimes, they don’t. We got our shots down. Sometimes, we were a little too cute. But overall, I think it’s heading in the right direction. But we definitely got to capitalize. I think that was one of our weakest parts of our game.”
Because players are still regaining their feel for the puck at the start of the season, the timing was off on crossing passes at times. When asked about that, Berenson implied that a more crisp offense will arrive as the players develop their coordination with each other.
“In the power play, when we move the puck great, we’re a better team, Berenson said. “It’s a little bit of communication, (and) it’s a little bit of getting to know each other when you’re on a certain line. We’re still feeling each other out.”