Everything to prove.
This is how the Michigan hockey team entered its season, slated to be a bottom-feeder in the highly competitive Big Ten by the preseason coaches’ poll.
Over the first month of their season, the Wolverines relentlessly worked to shatter that predetermined image.
A sweep of Vermont in the home opening series. Chip.
A 5-2 rout of then-No. 15 Penn State — at State College. Chip.
A fairly consistent top-10 ranking for its potent offense. Chip.
Despite these early season accolades, uncertainty lingered. Michigan undoubtedly had talent, making last year’s lifeless squad seem like a remote memory far in the past. But what were the bounds of its success?
The conference home opener against No. 4 powerhouse Minnesota would act as a barometer for this question.
And the Wolverines were well aware of that beforehand.
“We’re playing a team that has balance and depth,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “I don’t want to speak negatively to the teams we’ve played but they don’t quite have the depth in the scoring that Minnesota does.”
This weekend, all eyes turned anxiously to Ann Arbor to watch the Wolverines take on conference royalty.
And the first eight minutes of Friday’s second period emphasized that dethroning the Golden Gophers would not be simple. Minnesota’s stacked offense blitzed Michigan’s defensive zone, burying three goals, all while the Wolverines still had nothing to show for their efforts.
That moment could have been the answer to the question of how long Michigan’s early success could be sustained.
In the Golden Gophers’ previous four games, they had been stingy, giving up a meager 0.75 goals per game on average. Two of those games were against No. 11 Clarkson. Michigan had just over half a game to resurrect its offense while simultaneously stopping Minnesota. You can do the math.
A comeback, given the circumstance, was pretty implausible. But Michigan wasn’t fazed.
By the second intermission, the Wolverines rallied to make it a one-goal game. By the end of regulation, they had tacked on two more, sending the game to overtime.
On a power play in extra time, a shot from sophomore forward Will Lockwood connected with fifth-year senior Alex Roos’ helmet in front of the Gopher net. It was unorthodox, but the puck tipped in. Michigan won. Yost Ice Arena erupted.
“I’ve been in hockey a long time,” Pearson said. “You see a lot of strange things happen, so until that final second is off the clock, you continue to play. And that’s what I like about this team. And you’re going to continue to see that from them.”
In the series’ second game, the Wolverines saw a shockingly similar storyline. They had a four-goal deficit in the second. They again played what Pearson described as “heart-attack hockey,” tying the game at six with just over a minute left in the final period. After a fruitless overtime on both sides of the puck, the battle ended in a draw.
“Sometimes a tie feels like a loss,” Pearson said. “And sometimes, a tie actually feels like a win. And just the situation we were in, and to come back and get a tie for NCAA purposes is huge.”
And indeed it should feel like a win.
This weekend was a test. And the Wolverines passed it with flying colors.
No, it wasn’t pretty. Friday’s 5-4 overtime win was not a blowout, and Michigan didn’t sweep the weekend. Both nights, the Wolverines played thriller hockey, only emerging midway through the game, and in the nick of time for a dazzling comeback.
Yet Michigan, unranked, rattled the Gophers, who — up until Friday — were yet to give up five goals in one sitting. The next night they gave up six. The Wolverines battled adversity and walked away with a victory. Minnesota alternatively left Yost emptyhanded, devoid of a win on the weekend for the first time this season.
“(Minnesota) is a good hockey team,” Pearson said. “I thought for the most part it brought the best out in our team at times.”
There is no more conjecture regarding the extent of Michigan’s talent this season. The Wolverines gave the Golden Gophers their most troublesome weekend thus far this season, affirming that they can compete with the best. And what more, really, could Michigan have asked for?
Minnesota will view this weekend as a bitter loss. Michigan should view it as a win.
Following the weekend, the Wolverines are likely to earn a top-20 ranking for the first time this season. Even so, the team is continuing to raise the bar regarding its personal expectations.
“Yeah, you know we got a lot of confidence, but we got to keep moving forward,” Lockwood said. “We’re not going to settle for that, we aren’t going to settle for a win and a loss. We’re going to take that as a 1-1 weekend, and going into next weekend try to sweep.”
Of course this is the mindset Michigan has to maintain to prevent missing a step in the Big Ten — especially with a series against No. 7 Wisconsin next weekend.
But for the first time this season, the Wolverines have quieted their critics. They showed they can score, even when pressed for time. They can fight back from large deficits. They can keep up with top competitors.
As for that predetermined image?
Michigan just notched four points against the fourth-ranked team in the nation.
Marcus can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Anna_H_Marcus.