For about 15 minutes during practice everyday, Michigan coach Red Berenson doesn’t have any defense. He doesn’t need it.
Berenson takes his five-man power play, sticks them in the far zone, and has the unit execute its offensive zone power play — five-on-zero. The passing is quick and on the tape, the goals are pretty and the poor goalie facing the five-man onslaught is always a step behind.
Berenson usually lets his other coaches take over the drills while he stays to the side, giving players feedback individually and jumping in at opportune times. That’s not the case for the five-on-zero power play. The coach runs it personally, standing just outside the blue line, having the players huddle around him.
The whole drill seems a bit ridiculous to the outside observer — in a game they will never have as much time or space on the power play. But for Berenson, the drill serves an important purpose — so important that he’s done it in every practice this season.
“I want to see quick movement, receiving passes, moving the puck quick, not over handling the puck and then seeing what’s open,” Berenson said after practice Tuesday. “I need to know just about before I get it, who I’m going to give it to. And then I need to know where their stick is and where they are, so I can give a perfect pass.”
Michigan obviously doesn’t work exclusively five-on-zero. According to senior forward Louie Caporusso, the initial drill is just to get the “blueprint” in, before adding defenders.
With or without opposition, the Wolverines need the practice. The power play has faltered for much of the season, converting at just under 18 percent. Michigan is just 29th in the country with the man advantage.
And the struggles have come in bunches. After starting off the season strong, late in October the Wolverines began their first of two streaks in which the power play was scoreless in 20-plus chances.
But now, three weeks after ending the second streak, the power play is on an upswing — the Wolverines converted at 23 percent in the last five games. Michigan scored three goals with the man advantage in last weekend’s CCHA quarterfinal series against Bowling Green, and could have had a few more.
Their passing led to a couple high-quality chances on the power play, including one in which junior defenseman Brandon Burlon’s slap shot squeaked through Falcon goaltender Andrew Hammond’s legs and laid behind him for a split second without anyone noticing the puck was still loose — including the referee.
And the same things Berenson wants to see five-on-zero — quick puck movement, tape-to-tape passes, knowing where a player’s teammates are without having to look up — were listed as the reasons why the power play was having success when it became five-on-five.
“We did a good job making that first pass tape-to-tape,” senior forward Carl Hagelin said. “They were aggressive, but if you pass it quick and make good plays, it’s going to be tough to be too aggressive because they’re just going to end up running around, and we should be able to find those seam plays.”
Maybe practice does pay off.