Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson has emphasized all season that the players who earn regular spots in the lineup will be plus players.

Senior forward Lindsay Sparks, who has played sporadically this year, hasn’t seen his name on the lineup chart since Michigan’s 5-1 loss to Bowling Green on Jan. 8. Sparks finished that game with a minus-four rating and was a major factor in one of the Wolverines’ worst defensive performances of the year.

“I think our team is in desperate need to play better hockey defensively,” Berenson said. “That was a game where our team got embarrassed by Bowling Green, and Lindsay was one of the guys that we’ve had a microscope on.”

The defensive struggles have been a problem for the entire team, but Berenson isn’t afraid to point out specific players who need improvement, and fast. He also hasn’t hesitated to sit players who have been productive offensively but fail to show up on the defensive end.

And Berenson isn’t only looking for two-way players, but also players who have some of the intangibles — such as knowing where to be on the ice or anticipating an opponent’s next move. Sometimes these intangibles come instinctively, but if they don’t, practice and repetition become that much more important.

“Lindsay has got to play better without the puck,” Berenson said. “If he plays well with the puck that’s a bonus, but in the meantime, he can’t hurt us defensively. (The Bowling Green game) was a nightmare night for Lindsay, and our team since then has been reeling.

“We’ve been trying to get going and he’s been out of the mix. I don’t know if he’s going to get back in or not, but we’ll see.”

Sparks wasn’t necessarily benched as an example to the team that forwards should be as worried about their defensive play as they are their offensive play, but it wasn’t due to his lack of productivity on offense either. The Oakville, Ont. native has constantly struggled to stick with his man in the defensive zone, leading to wide-open chances on net for opposing teams.

Berenson has a reputation for recruiting players who are more offensively minded, but there’s always a plan for them to become two-way players. It’s forwards like former Wolverine Luke Glendening, who epitomized what Berenson considers to be a two-way player, that made Michigan the team it was offensively and defensively.

“If our players walk into the rink every night and all they’re thinking about is scoring goals, we’re not going to be very good without the puck,” Berenson said. “I can tell you the guys that are scoring goals for the most part are not coming to the rink worried about scoring goals.”

The Wolverines came out of this past weekend’s sweep at the hands of Notre Dame having allowed an abysmal 13 goals in those two games. This puts them up to 88 goals allowed in 24 conference games, or 3.67 goals per game — .76 more per game than Lake Superior State, the next-worse team.

The defensive struggles are not something that’s one player’s fault, or even one issue — they’re a culmination of poor coverage and communication. Though Sparks might be under a closer microscope than other players, he’s certainly not the only forward on Michigan’s roster that’s hurt the team with poor defensive play.

Despite his forthcomings, Sparks can only have improved since his poor performance against Bowling Green. And while he hasn’t dressed in over a month, he’s used his time in the stands during games to learn.

“I think just stick with the system and focus on the ‘D’ before anything else,” Sparks said when asked what he can do better defensively. “Just play harder and with more grit.”

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