Michigan coach Mel Pearson described his hockey team’s last two games against then-No. 2 Notre Dame as two of its best.
With a renewed energy on defense and a highly-effective — and newly-appointed — starting goaltender in sophomore Hayden Lavigne, the Wolverines (3-7-2-1 Big Ten, 8-10-2 overall) look to leverage these strengths the remainder of the season and catapult into the NCAA Tournament hunt.
Last weekend in its home-and-home series against the Fighting Irish, Michigan — its team offense currently ranked second in the Big Ten and 13th in the country — peppered the nation’s third-best defense with 70 total shots. Unfortunately for the Wolverines, only two of those shots found the back of the net, leading to a pair of 2-1 losses.
Just as some facets are starting to click, a major — and vitally important — piece to the equation has slowly declined: goal-scoring.
Despite success in some areas, Michigan is focused on reviving its offense and picking up much-needed conference wins this weekend at Minnesota (4-7-1-1, 13-10-1).
To get back in the win column — with only one win in the last five contests — goal-scoring and the effectiveness of special teams will be keys to victory, according to Pearson.
“We have to compete, first and foremost,” Pearson said. “We have to play smart and execute our game plan. I thought we did that against Notre Dame, but we didn’t score. One area we also have to get better at is our special teams.
“But we’re doing a lot of really good things, too. We have to make sure that we continue to do the things we’re doing well and continue to get better at those. But there are one or two areas of our game that we have to clean up and that’ll help us. That’ll take us from being in a tight game and losing to being in a tight game and winning.”
Pearson described senior forward Tony Calderone, junior forward Cooper Marody and freshman forward Josh Norris as “natural scorers.” But he noted other players don’t possess that innate ability. Instead, they need to be molded into scorers — from secondary contributors to score sheet stuffers.
The coaching staff stressed scoring techniques during practice, working with individual skaters on releasing the puck faster and changing the puck’s angle when shooting. Fine-tuning these skills will help combat a Minnesota defense that allows a stingy 2.38 goals per game, third-lowest in the conference.
Michigan’s special teams are also struggling, with both the power play and penalty kill units falling flat against the Fighting Irish.
The Wolverines mustered just five shots and no goals on four power plays and gave up two quality Notre Dame shorthanded chances. The penalty kill also sputtered, allowing both goals Friday and the game-winner Sunday.
Thus, special team drills and breakouts from the defensive zone were emphasized during Wednesday’s practice at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube, the Olympic-size rink used this week to match the dimensions of Minnesota’s rink.
When the two teams squared off in November in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines won the weekend series over the then-fourth-ranked Golden Gophers in dramatic, come-from-behind fashion. After trailing by three and four goals in successive games, they rallied to a 5-4 overtime victory and a 6-6 tie the next night.
While Michigan reflects on its accomplishments during the first series between the teams, it’s also conscious of the different circumstances this time around. Both teams have evolved into different identities more than halfway through the season, and Minnesota now has the home-ice advantage.
“I expect different games,” Pearson said. “I don’t think they’ll be as high-scoring as we saw earlier in the year. I think both teams have gotten much better defensively and have much better goaltending.
“We have a road mentality now. You have to make sure you play disciplined, you take advantage of the chances you get, you don’t give them many chances. … I think if we can do those things, we’ll have success over the weekend.”
The positives of late — including limiting turnovers in the neutral zone, squashing opponent’s scoring opportunities and elite netminding — helped the Wolverines play high-caliber hockey against one of the nation’s best in the Fighting Irish.
But to get over what Pearson referred to as “the hump” and win upcoming games against formidable Big Ten opponents, the scoring and special teams will need to be improved — starting this weekend in Minneapolis.
And the players are optimistic they can do just that.
“We need to keep doing what we’re doing,” Norris said. “I know we’ve fallen short a couple times, but Coach always says it’s not about the results but about the process, so I think as long as we listen to what they’re saying and implementing what they want us to do, we’ll be fine. We have to bring our character and our work ethic to Minnesota.”
Added freshman defenseman Quinn Hughes: “The Big Ten is obviously a really good league and that anyone can beat anyone on any given night. We’re very confident in our game right now, so we know that any night when we play our ‘A’ game, we can beat anyone.
“Two big games at Minnesota, hopefully we can sweep.”