Since returning from the two-week athletic department shutdown on Feb. 13, the Michigan hockey team’s results have been fairly predictable over the past four series: win one game, lose (or tie) the other.
Mel Pearson’s message after each weekend has been just as predictable.
“I still think we’re another week, week-and-a-half away from being where we need to be or where we were before the shutdown,” Pearson said Feb. 22, the Monday after a series split with Ohio State.
A week later, asked about the lingering effects of the shutdown after Michigan notched a win and a tie against Arizona State, Pearson’s thoughts remained the same:
“No doubt about it, we’re not the same team right now that we were before the break. We’re just not as together, and I’m concerned about our conditioning.”
Now entering the Big Ten Tournament and the NCAA Tournament after that, there’s no more margin for error. This season, both tournaments are single-elimination, meaning one off game can’t be redeemed by a strong showing the following night.
With that in mind, it would be easy to see the Wolverines’ most recent split against No. 4 Minnesota as yet another red flag that Michigan is too inconsistent and ultimately not ready for the postseason. Pearson himself, when asked again on Monday about the lingering effects of the shutdown, seemed to agree with that position to an extent.
“Defensively, we weren’t very good at times, and that’s where the disconnect is right now,” Pearson said. “And that scares me a bit. Before, I thought we were playing lights out, defensively. … But (now) too many chances against, our goalies have had to bail us out too much here recently, and we’ve been inconsistent.
“Long answer short, no, I don’t feel like we’re all the way back yet.”
But that doesn’t mean they haven’t made strides.
On the offensive end especially, Michigan showed tremendous growth during last weekend’s series. Friday, they put four goals past Minnesota goalie Jack LaFontaine — a total just two other teams have achieved all season. Even the two goals the Wolverines scored on Saturday exceeded LaFontaine’s 1.68 average goals allowed.
Largely, that success came from players fully embracing their roles in the offense. Star players showed star potential — freshman forward Matty Beniers, for example, tallied a season-high four points in Friday’s win. Others planted themselves right in front of the net and made sure every rebound was contested.
Michigan was far from perfect against the Gophers, and it came away with a split as a result. But to conclude that the Wolverines are still in the same place they were right after the shutdown would ignore the offensive growth that was on display against the Big Ten’s toughest defense.
“I think we’re in a really good spot right now,” junior defenseman Nick Blankenburg said after Saturday’s loss. “Obviously, playing on the road in Minnesota is a tough, tough task, and I thought we did a really good job on Friday night and tonight. … I think we’ve got a lot of guys playing really good hockey right now, so I’m looking forward to the playoffs.”
Sure, there’s still room for improvement to get Michigan back to its pre-shutdown levels, and if that room is significant, it will be exposed in the Big Ten Tournament. The Wolverines could potentially play three games in three days — a conditioning test that will magnify any and all unforced errors Michigan makes.
But at least relative to the games immediately after the pause, Michigan shouldn’t be too worried that it’s not hitting its potential. The team that showed up in both games against Minnesota — one that’s willing to go to the dirty areas, play physical hockey and force pucks on net — is unlikely to slip up against an inferior opponent, and it’s proven that it’s capable of dropping some of the league’s best.
While the margin for error has shrunk, so, too, have the errors themselves.