DETROIT, Mich. — The Monday after the Michigan hockey team swept then-No. 9 Minnesota, senior forward Tony Calderone and junior forward Cooper Marody were nominated for the Hobey Baker Award, which recognizes college hockey’s best player.
That was almost a month ago.
Halfway through the season, Calderone had already posted a team-high 15 goals, tied for seventh in the nation. Marody’s 31 points led the Big Ten and his 22 assists were second-best in the country. The duo had combined for five points against the Golden Gophers, and — along with senior forward Dexter Dancs — accounted for almost 40 percent of the Wolverines’ total points on the season.
But then the tandem went silent.
In the next three weekends, the pure goal-scorer in Calderone and ice general in Marody notched only one point between the two of them, losing what got them recognized in the first place.
Despite contributions from secondary scorers in a sweep against then-No. 12 Penn State on Jan. 20, Michigan wasn’t as fortunate afterward. No offensive production ran between two of the Wolverines’ biggest assets and the team began to falter. It was swept at then-No. 6 Ohio State and split a home series against then-No. 18 Wisconsin.
Amid a tight race for home-ice advantage in the Big Ten tournament and PairWise positioning for an NCAA Tournament berth, Michigan couldn’t afford to stumble this weekend against Michigan State. It needed Calderone and Marody to step up. And they rose to the occasion, playing prominent roles to help claim five of six very important points.
Friday night in East Lansing, the Wolverines and Spartans played to a 1-1 tie, resulting in a shootout to determine which team received the extra point in the conference standings.
In regulation, Calderone and Marody had two and three shots, respectively, creating what Michigan coach Mel Pearson referred to as “grade-A” scoring opportunities. While the pair didn’t hit the back of the net, they were slowly returning to their old form.
After neither team scored in the first two rounds of the shootout, Spartan forward Patrick Khodorenko’s shot in the third round was stopped by sophomore goaltender Hayden Lavigne.
Then it was up to Calderone to clinch the game.
While previous shootout skaters sauntered toward the net to try to make a move against opposing goaltenders, Calderone had other ideas. The senior captain barreled down the middle of the ice with a full head of steam. Head down, Calderone quickly moved the puck from his backhand to forehand and sniped a shot past the glove of goaltender John Lethemon and right under the crossbar.
Despite the recent drop-off in scoring, Calderone wasn’t deterred to change his shootout approach. And following dormancy since mid-January, he believes the game-winner is vital to his confidence down the regular season’s homestretch.
“(Assistant coach Brian Wiseman) always tells me I’m a shooter, so I tried to pick up some speed, get the goalie backing up a little bit and I was lucky enough to get it in there,” Calderone said after Friday’s game. “I think it’s easy to get frustrated when you’re not putting in the puck, but I have to get back to basics, keep my feet moving and hopefully that goal can give me some confidence.”
While the Spartan crowd was silenced, the Wolverines were whipped into a frenzy. As the team skated out to celebrate with Calderone, Pearson and his assistant coaches came together for a group hug and jumped up and down. The coach then ran out onto the ice and embraced his captain.
When asked why he showed that much emotion, a usually even-keeled Pearson didn’t respond about the crucial Big Ten point won or defeating an in-state rival. He was just as elated for the hard-working Calderone for getting back on track.
“It’s good for Tony because, let’s face it, he’s been struggling lately,” Pearson said. “For him to go in and shoot that puck like he did, he made it look easy and like he’s done it a thousand times. The ice was bad, but that was pure Tony and hopefully that gives him a bit of a lift here going forward.”
The next night, it was Marody’s turn.
Four minutes and 22 seconds into the first period, sophomore defenseman Griffin Luce blasted a shot from the point that bounced off Lethemon’s pads and found its way to Calderone in the left circle. Just as the Spartan goaltender inched outside the crease to make a play on Calderone, the senior directed a pass to the middle of the ice for a streaking Marody.
Marody wouldn’t miss a beat, tapping the puck into a wide-open net to put the Wolverines on the board. With a fist pump from his knee and a jump into the boards, Marody breathed life into the Michigan offense and energized the Wolverine faithful scattered around Little Caesars Arena.
“(Cooper’s) a phenomenal player,” Pearson said following Saturday’s 3-2 victory. “He should’ve had, I think, five or six points tonight.”
For the rest of the contest, Calderone and Marody applied two-way pressure on the Spartans. Each finished with four shots on goal, many crisp passes and defensive stops, all contributing to plus-minus ratings of plus-two for both skaters in the win.
Calderone’s assist in the first frame was his first point since Jan. 13 at Minnesota. Marody’s goal and assist gives him just three points in the last eight games.
Yet despite the recent setbacks in point production, Calderone and Marody kept playing with the same intensity and grit that originally earned them Hobey Baker Award nominations.
“You have to trust yourself that you’re a good player,” Pearson said. “You have to have that inner confidence … and the points will come. You have to do A, B, C, D and then when you get the opportunities, make them count.
“And they’ve played well, it’s not like they haven’t played well, things just haven’t gone in. But I thought they had a real good weekend, both of them, both nights.”
How reassuring was it for Pearson to have Calderone and Marody show up in such a big way this weekend?
“You knew it was going to happen, they’re good hockey players,” Pearson said. “If you’ve ever played the game, you’re all going to go through moments where things maybe don’t go your way. It can be for a short period of time or it can be for an extended period of time.
“I think the time is over. I’m going to tell them it’s over.”