At the end of regulation in its December trip to East Lansing, the No. 18 Michigan hockey team had been blown out, 5-0. But this Friday proved a much different story.
The Wolverines left the first 60 minutes tied up at one, and with nothing added to the scoreboard by either team in overtime, Michigan and Michigan State headed to a shootout.
Before sophomore Hayden Lavigne skated back to his spot between the pipes, Mel Pearson briefly spoke to him.
“I just told him to ‘get ‘er done,’ ” Pearson said.
And adhering to his coach’s advice, the netminder did just that.
Fully locked in, Lavigne first stopped Spartans forward Taro Hirose’s shootout attempt. Then he left Mitch Lewandowski with the same fate. And to secure the extra Big Ten point, Lavigne finally shut down Patrick Khodorenko in conjunction with senior forward Tony Calderone knocking in the Wolverines’ last attempt.
This performance was largely in contrast with the last time Lavigne played at Munn Ice Arena, on Dec. 8. In that game, after surrendering four goals over the first two periods of play, Lavigne was benched and his counterpart Jack LaFontaine was put in.
Lavigne’s performance this past Friday — where he allowed just one goal — was then matched by a nearly flawless showing in Detroit the following night. The goaltender stopped 32 pucks, letting just two slip by en route to Michigan’s 3-2 victory.
These big outings for Lavigne, which aided the Wolverines in claiming a crucial tie and win over Michigan State this weekend, are emblematic of newfound confidence the netminder has gained over the course of this season.
Since the beginning of January — when he was given the starting role — Lavigne has positioned himself both more decisively and with more ease, demonstrating comfort in the net. These qualities were not nearly as evident during the last series with the Spartans. And right now, Pearson believes Lavigne’s morale is at a season peak.
“His calmness, his confidence, he’s up on the top of his crease more,” Pearson said. “When you see him up on the top of the blue paint, and then when you see less movement from him, he’s not all over the place …. he’s playing and handling the puck better and coming out of the net and moving it.
“It’s a lot of those little things. He just seems more dialed in and he’s got a lot of confidence right now. And you have to earn that, it’s not something you can go into the store and buy. … And he’s done a good job of that.”
Confidence can manifest itself in different ways during a shootout, either positively or negatively, due to the way in which the high-pressure situation puts a spotlight on every move a goaltender makes.
For Lavigne on Friday, the former held true. But though he made it look easy, playing in goal during a shootout is anything but.
“It’s kind of a mental battle between who is more patient between the shooter and the goalie,” Lavigne said. “It’s definitely a tough situation, kind of 50-50 on each one. As long as I can out weight (the shooter), usually I have a good chance to make the save.”
There is a significant amount of strategy that goes into how a goaltender adjusts his positioning and degree of movement in shootout situations. Lavigne has been working on an approach that works well for him.
“I try and get out a couple feet above the crease and match his speed coming in so that we’re kind of coming back together,” Lavigne said. “But at the same time, it’s a lot of timing. If he’s shooting the puck, you’re still out far enough. But if he dekes, you still have enough speed to move laterally.”
These situations — though fairly rare as the Wolverines have seen just three — hold importance as they provide the victor with an extra Big Ten point. Lavigne has played in the net during each of these outings this season.
Given the high stakes, they are often replicated in Michigan’s practices.
“We have some shootouts every day before the game,” Pearson said. “It’s more of a fun shutout, not too serious. But there’s different drills, where you’ll have a break away type of situation, so (the goaltenders) see enough of those.”
While confidence in the shootouts is necessary, this attitude first stems from a goaltender’s confidence in regulation. And though strategy can get a goaltender so far, the key thing to keep in check, according to Lavigne, is mentality.
And with the stakes rising given that the Wolverines’ regular season is coming to a close, keeping mentality on point is more important than ever for Lavigne. However, the added pressure of a potential home-ice advantage in the Big Ten Tournament and a potential bid to the NCAA Tournament seem to be acting as motivators.
“There’s definitely a little bit (of additional pressure), but at the same time, that makes it more exciting,” Lavigne said. “That’s why we come to play at a school like this, to play in these big games. So, with the pressure comes more excitement, comes a louder fan base, so it’s a good atmosphere to be around.”