This Week in Big Ten Hockey: Michigan gets back on ice after COVID-19 pause, splits with Wisconsin as ‘response was phenomenal’

Michigan freshman forward Brendan Brisson was a first-round pick of Vegas back in October (photo: Michigan Photography).

With Wisconsin coming into town, Michigan didn’t exactly get to ease back into things after a COVID-19-related pause forced it to take 22 days off.

For the first 20 minutes of Saturday’s game, the Wolverines looked like a team that had taken three weeks off, but the offense woke up in the second and scored four goals on the way to a 5-1 victory. Michigan, who travels to Ohio State this weekend, settled for a split with the Badgers after dropping a 3-2 game on Valentine’s Day.

“The first 10 minutes was probably predictable,” Michigan assistant coach Kris Mayotte said of the first game back. “It wasn’t our energy, it wasn’t physical, it wasn’t our skating, and it wasn’t our work ethic, but brains just weren’t quick enough. We didn’t feel like we were playing poorly, but we weren’t clicking yet, and they score and it puts you on your heels a little bit, but I thought our response was phenomenal.”

Five different players scored the five goals for the Wolverines on Saturday and, even with a line chart littered with young talent and NHL draft picks, that has become something that is to be expected.

“We have a lot of talented players and we have a lot of guys that can score,” Mayotte said. “We don’t have one ‘go-to’ or two ‘go-to’ guys, [and] we don’t have an (Alexander) Ovechkin or (Steven) Stamkos. It’s not like we don’t have guys that can score like that, but I think we have a lot of guys that can score.”

Six of the team’s top seven scorers have more assists than goals and the lone exception, freshman Brendan Brisson, has an even number of goals and helpers. 19 players have lit the lamp at least once for the Wolverines this season.

“We have three lines that are pretty dang close to each other in terms of goals and our ‘D’ scores a fair bit,” Mayotte said. “It speaks to our depth, that we have a lot of playmakers and we have a lot of guys that can finish. It’s not like if one guy isn’t scoring that night, we don’t have a chance, we believe that anyone can contribute on any given night.”

The defensive corps, including highly-touted youngsters Cam York and Owen Power and junior Nick Blankenburg, have been instrumental in helping the team’s transition offense.

“The more guys that you can have joining the rush offensively, hopefully, the more confusion it causes for the opposing team defensively,” Mayotte said. “We have a D-corps that likes to get up in the rush, we’re very mobile, we have good offensive sticks, and we have good offensive instincts. So, it’s something that we certainly encourage.”

Though the offense captures a lot of the headlines, another factor that has helped Michigan go 6-2 in 2021 has been the fact that the Wolverines are no longer cutting ruts to the penalty box. The Wolverines penalty kill, which Mayotte described as “atrocious” in the first half of the season, is currently ranked 34th in the nation at 77.97 percent.

“We’ve gotten better in the last couple of weekends but a part of that is we haven’t had the pressure put on us as much with four, five or six penalty kills a game. It’s been one to three, and that’s manageable,” he said. “We’re playing faster and managing the game better. That’s a big part of it, a lot of penalties happen in transition. You’re going one way and all of a sudden, the play goes back the other way and you’re caught, so you either hold or reach or hook or trip. Game management and puck management has a lot to do with penalties.”

Gophers hope to stay on track after sweep at Notre Dame

For the second time this season, Minnesota was tasked with picking itself up after getting swept at home and, for the second time this season, the Gophers accomplished that task with a convincing sweep of their own.

Though back-to-back 3-0 shutouts of Notre Dame lacked goal-scoring theatrics of Minnesota’s sweep of Arizona State in January, they were just as welcome of a sight for coach Bob Motzko.

“This was a must-respond game for us, and I thought every guy tonight had a good game,” Motzko said after Friday’s game. “When you’re moving your feet and you’ve got your brain engaged, good things are going to happen, and it did for us tonight.

“We’ve had a couple of weekends since Christmas where we’ve gotten off track, and it rattles you. We needed to respond after last week and we’ve got to continue that, that has to be a staple in our game.”

Senior goaltender Jack LaFontaine agreed with his head coach and said there was more concerns that came out of the series against Wisconsin than the 4-1 and 8-1 victories by the Badgers.

“We’re a very resilient group of guys, I think,” LaFontaine said after Saturday’s game. “We don’t want to dwell on the past, but last weekend was unacceptable and not just on a score standpoint, but I think on an effort standpoint.

“Coming out here to South Bend, we had a lot of things to clean up. The biggest thing was taking some momentum into this eight-game stretch and now we’ve got six games left here and we want to keep on building on it. It’s a perfect time for us to hold some momentum and keep on riding it and take it right into the playoffs.”

LaFontaine’s two shutouts this past weekend gives him five on the season and his career and came after getting pulled last time out against the Badgers.

“The season’s a roller coaster,” he said. “There’s nights I’m going to let in eight and there’s nights I’m going to let in zero and at the end of the day it doesn’t really change my demeanor. I think that’s one of my biggest strengths as a goalie, it takes a lot to rattle me and just pretty even-keel when it comes down to it.”


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