September 15 was a day of firsts for the Michigan hockey team.
It was the opening practice for the 2017-18 campaign. It was the beginning of Mel Pearson’s tenure at the helm. And it was the first look at a group determined to rebound after a lackluster season and restore prestige to one of college hockey’s most storied programs.
More than halfway through the year, the Wolverines were unranked with an 8-10-2 record. An NCAA Tournament berth was far from the realm of possibility. But since Jan. 7, Michigan has gone 8-3-1 with three sweeps of top-15 teams, including No. 1 Notre Dame last weekend, and risen to No. 13 in the USCHO poll.
Through trials and tribulations over the past five months, the nation’s third-youngest team has positioned itself for a postseason run.
Following the two wins over the Fighting Irish, the Wolverines (16-13-3) sit at No. 11 in the PairWise rankings and third place in the Big Ten standings. Michigan is guaranteed home-ice advantage in the first round of the conference tournament, and College Hockey News gives it a 95-percent chance of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament.
Since Sept. 15, there have been questions about every facet of its game — offense, defense, special teams and goaltending. But many were answered this past month, and the Wolverines have survived the gauntlet of Big Ten powerhouses, looking more complete than they have all season.
Now, Michigan is one regular-season series from beginning its chase for postseason glory.
The one team standing in the Wolverines’ way? Arizona State (8-19-5), a program in just its third year of Division I hockey and No. 55 of 60 teams in PairWise. On paper, the Sun Devils hardly seem a threat for a Michigan team with so much momentum.
After running full speed since September, additional rest in advance of next weekend’s looming Big Ten Tournament would be smart. Taking it easy before being thrown into high-level matchups in the NCAA Tournament makes sense. Especially with the season’s last games against a bottom-feeder in Arizona State, a team at which some wouldn’t bat an eye.
But a loss or two against the lowly Sun Devils would instantly erase the Wolverines’ second-half turnaround. Compiling recent victories over top teams to be an arm’s length from returning to the playoffs would all be for naught.
At this point, the implications are known for a weekend that, on the surface, once felt like an afterthought on the calendar compared to series against previous conference heavyweights.
“We have to treat Arizona State like a No. 1 team,” said junior defenseman Joseph Cecconi Tuesday. “If we don’t beat them twice, that’s going to hurt us big time in the PairWise. We have to prepare basically just like any other game, any other Big Ten game. It might be these two games are the most important for our season.”
Despite the high stakes of this weekend felt by players, the length and strain of the past five months remains the reality — something Pearson strives to put into perspective.
“This time of the year, you have to be careful with how much you’re putting them on the ice,” Pearson said after Tuesday’s skate-around. “… It’s a long season. It’s all about the games and having the energy for the games right now, so we’re going a little lighter.”
Coming down the homestretch, Michigan has taken two days off each week instead of the usual one. Following Sunday night’s win against the Fighting Irish, there was an off-day Monday and just a half-hour skate Tuesday “to get a light sweat.”
Even without formal practices some days, Pearson still makes sure to coach off the ice. Realizing the physical toll on a skater’s body throughout the season, he demands his players take a much-needed — and well-deserved — break.
Pearson stresses they get schoolwork done on off-days and eight-plus hours of sleep. He constantly reminds them about the “sleep-rest ratio” and shares articles about the importance of recovery.
“I wish the coach followed the same advice he’s giving his players,” Pearson joked. “I’m not adhering to the eight hours, but I don’t have to play.”
Though nearing the end of the regular season, practice objectives are the same — focus on individuals early in the week, then turn the attention to the upcoming opponent.
While the early days leading into a weekend series are usually for studying film and ironing out kinks in players’ games, this week emphasized rest.
“We want to keep ourselves fresh and ready to go,” Cecconi said. “The coaching staff knows what they’re doing. They’re not going to burn us out or they’re not going to skate us too little or too much. We just kind of follow their lead and still work hard.”
One-hundred and sixty days ago, Michigan began its trek to the NCAA Tournament, which it missed last season.
After months of practice and preparation, the Wolverines now find themselves two games away from carrying out the task that once looked overly daunting.
Taking a break may be necessary, but Michigan won’t lose sight of the work that originally got it to this place. Intense conference play may have ended with an impressive showing against Notre Dame, but “the highs won’t get too high,” according to Cecconi. This won’t be a down week or a week to celebrate past victories.
“It’s a little less workload,” Pearson said. “But we want to stay sharp at the same time.”
Prematurely looking to the playoffs and resting for the possibly long road ahead is important, but the Wolverines won’t look past Arizona State, a team with nothing to lose, poised to play spoiler at Yost Ice Arena.
“This weekend is big,” Cecconi said. “If we don’t do what we need to do, then last weekend doesn’t matter.”
Should Michigan play flatly and the Sun Devils take advantage, all the work since Sept. 15 to return to the postseason will most likely go to waste.