It may sound easy: Send out two guys on the same team and with the same goal, they should be able to play well together.
However, finding two men to play as a defensive pair, or a trio as a forward line, can be a challenge.
Each defenseman has to know what the other will do in certain situations, like jump ahead on a rush up the ice or take a gamble to intercept an opponent’s pass, while trusting the other to cover the gap created by those moves.
Heading into the fourth week of the season, with Michigan skating into Pegula Ice Arena for games at 7 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday, the No. 15 Nittany Lions are still looking for the best defensive pairings. It’s not unusual for pairings to be shuffled throughout the season, whether because of injury, stale play or simply to get others on the ice who have not played as much, changes always happen.
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“There’s definitely an adjustment period — different styles of defensemen,” said sophomore Kris Myllari, who was part of a reshuffling when Kevin Kerr was lost for the final months of last season to an injury.
Kerr is once again hurt, though this time is just in question week-to-week, but it has led to more chemistry experiments.
“We’re not comfortable yet,” head coach Guy Gadowsky said. ‘If Kevin Kerr is out, we’ll experiment with a couple different pairs this weekend.”
But coaches and players are always looking for that combination that just works, like what Erik Autio and Vince Pedrie had the previous two seasons with near-perfect complementary play. Pedrie opted to leave school early to play professionally, prompting a member of the media before the season to ask Autio if he was using “Defenseman Tinder” to find a new pairing.
Last weekend, Autio “swiped right” for freshman Cole Hults at his side on the blue line.
There are factors big and small that go into combinations, from the most tangible of whether someone has a right- or left-handed shot, to the less obvious like how offensive-minded one may be or the accuracy of their passes.
“Our D-core’s good enough, anyone can play with everyone,” said senior Trevor Hamilton, who was paired with Kerr for the season’s opening weekend. “It doesn’t matter if you’re playing with two righties or two lefties.”
Hamilton feels lately he’s found something that works almost like family — junior Derian Hamilton. No, they are not related. Trevor is from Michigan; Derian is from British Columbia, Canada.
“We have a lot of chemistry on and off the ice,” Trevor Hamilton said. “It’s kind of that ‘brother’ relationship, I think, even though we’re not related. We always joke about there’s something there.”
The only pairing that has been fairly steady for the first three weeks has been Myllari with fellow sophomore James Gobetz. For Myllari, not matter the pairing, he and the rest of the blue-liners are most interested in taking care of their defensive priorities. If they can get pucks cleared and onto the sticks of Nittany Lion forwards heading the other direction, then everything is working as it should.
“It’s a matter of playing clean on my end,” Myllari said. “That will translate throughout the whole ice.”
Notes: For the first time in more than three decades, Michigan will have someone different behind the bench. Red Berenson retired after last season, and Mel Pearson takes over as the Wolverines play their first Big Ten game Friday. Gadowsky thinks there should not be big changes to the program even with new leadership — “His footprint’s going to be all over that team,” Gadowsky said of Berenson — and both teams have a little extra familiarity even if they haven’t met yet. On the season’s opening weekend, the Lions and Wolverines were in northern New York at the same time to meet Clarkson and St. Lawrence.
Men’s college hockey
Who: Michigan (3-1) at No. 11 Penn State (3-3)
When: 7 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Pegula Ice Arena
Radio: WAPY 103.1 FM
Leading scorers: PSU—Denis Smirnov (4 goals, 6 assists), Andrew Sturtz (2G, 3A), Cole Hults (2G, 3A), Trevor Hamilton (1G, 4A); UM—Josh Norris (2G, 2A), Jake Slaker (2G, 1 A), Will Lockwood (1G, 2A), Quinn Hughes (1G, 2A)