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October 11, 2006 - Image 14

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Publication:
The Michigan Daily, 2006-10-11

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Waltz into Yost Ice Arena any week-
day afternoon, and what you see hovering
around the blue line might be a bit confus-
ing.
Future NHL players and dazzling tal-
ent swirl around the zone. But this isn't an
NHL prospects camp. This is the Michi-
gan defense.
And while most of the backliners know
their futures lie in pro hockey, the one con-
cern right now is Michigan's goal - and
keeping pucks out of it.
Then and now
To say the Wolverines struggled with
goals against last season is an understate-
ment. Sophomore Jack Johnson refers to it
as a disaster.
The young team allowed 125 goals in 41
games, including the 5-1 thrashing from
North Dakota that sealed Michigan's one-
and-done NCAA Tournament appearance.
The previous season saw 22 fewer pucks
pass over the goal line.
"Last year with our goals against, they
tow were higher than normal," Michigan asso-
ciate coach Billy Powers said. "No one
was happy about that."
Despite a promising fall that included
a stint as the No. 1 team in the nation,
Michigan's weakness showed as the year
went on. Eleven freshmen and a slew of
mistakes from all age groups produced a
slumping team from one of hockey's most
storied programs.
They tried tweaking lines. They tried
switching goalies. But the Wolverines
couldn't solve it and finished third in the
CCHA for one of the program's worst sea-
sons in more than a decade. Their offense
was the best in the conference at 3.64 goals
per game. Their defense? A lowly ninth in the
CCHA with 2.93 goals allowed per game.
In the end, Michigan was left with an
offseason of reviewing tape and a handful
of questions.
"I think our team defense as a whole
wasn't the best," now senior captain Matt
Hunwick said. "We didn't give our goal-
ies much help. We gave up a lot of break-
sways, a lot of odd-man rushes. We can't
allow those little mistakes to happen if we
want to be a championship team."
Remembering last year's faults, the
Michigan defense has a renewed sense of
what it means to protect its goal.
Perhaps most importantly, last year's
entire blue line is back to prove it's better
than before. This year, it's stacked. Five
NHL draftees, three of them first-round
F 4 picks. Three mature seniors. Two superstar
sophomores. Two highly touted freshman.

And everyone hopes that equals one
stingy defense.
It's said that defense wins champion-
ships, and whether or not that's true,
Powers has witnessed two of them in his
15-year tenure. The man knows an extraor-
dinary defense when he sees one.
"This is probably our deepest and most
talented group on paper- no question with
that," Powers said. "We have to make that
translate on the ice. We have the potential
to be a very, very special defense, as far as
the Michigan history goes."
Seasoned seniors
It's a powerful combination.
The poise that comes after three years
of college competition, and the urgency of
having just one left.
With former Wolverines Al Montoya
and Jeff Tambellini among the many that
left town before graduation day in recent
years, it's been a while since Michigan
enjoyed a non-depleted, fully developed
senior class.
"It's nice to see the seniors stay and
complete their four years, become domi-
nant players and be rewarded for it,"
Michigan coach Red Berenson said. "I'm
a big believer in that."
Hunwick, drafted by the Boston Bruins
in 2004, is living evidence of the devel-
opment that comes from a full college
career.
The Sterling Heights native started his
career with a plus-14 freshman campaign,
but lit the red lamp just once all season.
His second year brought six goals, fol-
lowed by 11 goals his junior year. Each
year he maintained his position at the top
of Michigan's plus/minus list, with two
back-to-back plus-15 seasons.
"Matt has become a tremendous two-
way defenseman here," Powers said. "He's
become a threat offensively, jumping into
the play, carrying the puck up the ice. But
at the same time he has not lost his bread
and butter, being a reliable responsible top
defenseman.
"When he got here we always knew
we were going to have a great defensive
defenseman. Now he's become a great
defenseman because he can provide great
offense as well as great defense."
The steady anchor on the blue line was
awarded for his consistency and expanded
skills with a "C" on his jersey. Winning
the Vic Heyliger Trophy as Michigan's top
defenseman each of the last two seasons,
Hunwick is no stranger to leadership.
Teammates point to his work ethic as
his best quality.

"Hunwick's just a horse," fellow senior
defenseman Tim Cook said. "He's a really
hard worker."
Alternate captain Jason Dest has also
established himself as someone for others
to look up to.
The Fraser native tends to fly under the
radar. To someone outside the program, he
might seem an odd choice for the "A" on a
team full of nationally recognized names.
But watch Dest in practice and see how
he interacts with his fellow players. He's
not just Michigan's top penalty-killing
defenseman, he's the quintessential team-
mate.
"He has a tremendous amount of respect
from his peers," Powers said. "He's always
taken time to help the young players devel-
op. He's always cared about his teammates
and the program. He's just a guy that wears
the 'M' on his sleeve all the time."
Boasting a newfound confidence that's
been slowly simmering over his college
career, Dest appears poised to play his
best hockey yet. Considering he's riding
Michigan's longest active streak of con-
secutive games played (125), his reliabil-
ity is an asset, too.
Like Dest, Cook isn't making head-
lines for his offensive heroics. Last year
against CCHA cupcake Bowling Green,
he notched the first and only score of his
career.
But also like Dest, the mature and
dependable blue liner is coming into his
own as a hockey player.
"They want to have breakout years,"
Powers said.
Cook, a 2003 Ottawa Senators draft
pick, is best known for his size and prow-
ess on the penalty kill. Together with
Dest, shorthanded doesn't seem like such
a disadvantage for Michigan.
It's all part of the beauty of being a
senior. And the Wolverines are glad to
soak that in - three times over, with three
respected veterans.
Second year of stardom
Pressure. Pressure to carry Michigan.
Pressure to get drafted. Pressure to play
pro hockey. Pressure, pressure, pressure.
The sophomore defensemen know it
well. It's defined their short Michigan
careers.
But the awkward first practices, the
nerve-wracking first games and days of
NHL meddling are afterthoughts now.
Jack Johnson and Mark Mitera came
in with a group of nine other freshmen.
Johnson, the third overall pick in the 2005
draft, arrived in the midst of hype so loud

it could put a Yost home crowd to shame.
Mitera found himself in a depleted
defense that needed his physical presence
to succeed. He also played up to his first
year of draft eligibility.
Mitera worked as a freshman to get
drafted high, and he succeeded, going 19th
overall in 2006 to the Anaheim Ducks.
Johnson fought to stay in Ann Arbor
after increased pressure from the NHL,
and he did. Doing so meant he got traded
from the can't-wait Carolina Hurricanes to
the patient Los Angeles Kings.
"His head is clear now," Powers said.
"He's been traded, there's no more 'When's
Carolina going to call next and ask me to
come?' Jack's issues are a little different
than a lot of players. ... It was hard on
him, very difficult. Now he's comfortable
with fact that L.A. will wait."
Both drafted and content in Ann Arbor,
Johnson and Mitera can finally focus on
the heart of it all: what happens on the
ice.
The two sophomores had impressive
first years despite all the buzz and expec-
tations. Mitera notched 10 assists while
using his menacing 210-pound, 6-foot-3
frame to be a physical force against oppos-
ing forwards.
Unfortunately for them, Powers said
Mitera has added about 15 pounds to that.
"He's not a guy you want to run into
right now," Powers said.
As for Johnson, he's a player opponents
tried to run into - but not because he's
easy to take on.
It was no secret that getting the hot
NHL prospect riled up didn't take much.
Johnson racked up 149 penalty minutes
for the season, more than double of any
other Wolverine.
But a year older and wiser, Johnson said
he's going to pick his spots a bit more this
season.
"I'm not going to say I won't have penal-
ties this year, because I probably will, but
it just probably won't be as many," Johnson
said.
The situation is a catch-22 for Michigan
coaches. Being shorthanded often is never
good, but stifling Johnson's fire and inten-
sity would be taking one of the best ele-
ments from his game.
The one thing that doesn't seem to be
going anywhere is Johnson's firepower up
front. A finalist for last season's CCHA
Best Offensive Defenseman, he notched
10 goals and 22 assists. In the team's two
exhibition games last week, Johnson man-
aged three goals and five assists.
See DEFENSE, page 8B

BEFORE JOHNSON AND
HUNWICK, THERE WAS
BLUM AND MANNING
College hockey fans looked on with
awe last season as Matt Hunwick
and Jack Johnson notched 30 and
32 points, respectively. To have one
defenseman who can contribute so
much to an offense is rare, and to
have two is unheard of. Or is it?
During the dog days of Michigan
hockey, the 1979-80 Wolverines
found themselves mired in fourth
place at the end of the WCHA
season despite being led by one
of the most prolific scoring lines in
NCAA history. The Farrell Fivesome
- named for then-Michigan
coach Dan Farrell - combined
for a staggering 338 points.
The line was anchored by two
defensemen who have lived in relative
anonymity in Michigan hockey history,
John Blum and Tim Manning. Manning
became captain of the following
year's team, and Blum enjoyed a
healthy career in the NHL, but their
contributions to the Farrell Fivesome
are often forgotten. The two combined
for 101 points that season - more
than the combined total of all eight
Michigan defensemen last season.
- James V. Dowd
Here's a comparison of Blum and
Manning's magical season to Hunwick
and Johnson's 2005-06 season:
1979-1980 regular season
Player GP G A Pts PIM
Blum 37 9 41 50 79
Manning 38 8 43 51 6
Total 75 17184 101 85
2005-2006 regular season
Player GP G A Pts PIM
Hunwick 38 9 18 27 64
Joho 35 s0 22 32 143.
Total 73 1±9140 59 207

MOVING ON UP

In the game of hockey, there
are defensemen and there are for-
wards.
And maybe some who do a little
of both.
The Michigan coaches are cer-
tainly not opposed to moving play-
ers between the two ends of the
ice. Just ask senior David Rohlfs, a
natural forward who spent the first
23 games of last season on the blue
line.
In Rohlfs's case, the Wolverines
had an ailing defense. That's not
an issue this season, as Michigan
boasts a deep and talented back
line. But with players like Jack
Johnson and Matt Hunwick racking
up ridiculous offensive statistics,
it's easy to wonder what they would
be like if they moved up front.
"We definitely have talked about
that issue" associate coach Billy
Powers said. "They could probably
really add an offensive element to
a line."
Aside from spicing up a stagnant
offensive combination, moving
a defenseman up might help add
some defensive responsibility to a
line that is dominated by offensive

players.
Either way, Powers said the only
way a blue liner could get moved
up is if he could hold his own
offensively on one of the top two
lines.
One player who seems fit to do
so is freshman Chris Summers, a
Milan native who spent his hock-
ey career as a forward until he
switched to defense at14 years old.
He enters this season as a defense-
man, but could go either way.
"Too be honest with you I
wouldn't care if I was playing
goalie, just as long as I'm playing,"
Summers said. "The transition to
forward isn't too big. It's just kind
of like getting on a bike again after,
a while. You never forget the posi-
tion, you just get back in the groove
of things."
As for Johnson, who's been seen
up front occasionally during prac-
tice, he's not opposed to shuffling
things up either.
"I think it'd be kind of fun," John-
son said. "I'm a defenseman, and
that's my first priority. But if coach
wants to throw me up at forward, I
have no problem with that."

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