After Saturday’s 3-1 loss to then-No. 4 Michigan, Northern Michigan coach Walt Kyle heaped praise on a certain Wolverine.
“I thought (Jeff) Tambellini was the best player on the ice,” Kyle said. “He played exceptionally well. He was, without a doubt, the most dangerous player.”
Strange, considering that Tambellini — who ranks second on the team with 32 points and is known mostly for his offensive skills — was held without a single point over the two-game weekend series. So why was Kyle so complimentary to the junior alternate captain?
“There’s a chance for him to score every time he touches the puck,” junior Andrew Ebbett said. “That’s a great asset for the team to have.”
Tambellini touched the puck plenty of times over the weekend, keeping the Northern Michigan defenders honest and aware at all times. He fired shots on net early and often, beginning with a rocket just five minutes into Friday’s game that was snagged by Wildcats goalie Tuomas Tarkki. His eight shots in the series were the most of any player on either team.
But that’s nothing new to Tambellini, who has led Michigan in shots on goal in each of his previous two seasons in Ann Arbor. He currently leads the Wolverines with 135 shots this year, a remarkable 44 more than Brandon Kaleniecki, who ranks second. But Tambellini insists that his shots were worth taking.
“They were quality shots,” Tambellini said. “Sometimes you’re throwing pucks through traffic, and some nights they hit a stick that goes down. Some nights they just find a way to go through.”
Michigan goalie Al Montoya knows just how threatening Tambellini can be when he has the puck in the offensive zone. Montoya faces Tambellini every day in practice. The two often go head-to-head in a lighthearted drill where Michigan players skate in alone in an attempt to get the puck past the netminder. Though Montoya stops most of the shots he faces, Tambellini comes out on top more than most other Wolverines.
“If you give (Tambellini) anything, he’s going to put it there,” Montoya said. “You just have to bring your best (as a goalie). You need an extra focus. He can come in with speed and release the puck without you even knowing it’s being released.
“It’s more of a privilege that I have to come out here and take shots from him, because he makes me better. And I hope to think that I make him better.”
But Tambellini wants to be known as more than simply an offensive powerhouse. Over the summer, he paid extra attention to improving his play on the defensive side of the puck. Thus far, Tambellini has shown progress in his quest to become a complete player.
“I’ve been really trying to concentrate over the offseason,” Tambellini said. “(I’ve been) paying attention to defensive hockey and being a player that can be counted on for all situations and be known as a complete player, not just a goal-scorer. So far it’s paying off.”
The results can be seen in Tambellini’s team-leading plus-21 mark in the plus-minus category. After his freshman year, Tambellini ranked 10th on the team with plus-10, while he was just 14th last year with plus-5.
“I think his plus-minus will give you a pretty good indication that he’s improved (on defense),” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “I think he’s a more responsible player than he was. He’s a junior now. He’s a smart kid. He should have it all figured out. I think Tambellini has earned trust with our defensemen.”
Tambellini has come to realize that hard work in the defensive zone is rewarded with results on the offensive end.
“I’ve learned that when you play solid without the puck, things happen for you on (offense),” Tambellini said. “It’s so key to just be solid in the defensive zone. It always seems to be the same way: If you play well down here, you’re going to get a lot of chances down there.”