There’s some familiarity in the coming matchup for the No. 12 Michigan hockey team.
The Wolverines will play a weekend series against Lake Superior State, a program helmed by coach Damon Whitten.
After a 16-19-1 record in 2013-14, the Lakers hired Whitten to turn the ship around. But instead, the team encountered a rougher start than expected, ending Whitten’s first year with just eight wins.
Michigan coach Mel Pearson knows a thing or two about turning a program around. He saw a similar start at Michigan Tech before bringing the hockey program to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 34 seasons in 2015. And Whitten by his side as his assistant coach.
“He’s going to do a good job,” Pearson said. “It’s just taking a little bit more time than anyone thought, but he’s a good hockey guy, and I think now is the year I think they can make some strides.”
Learning the ins-and-outs of Pearson’s system, Whitten specialized in recruiting and in-game defensive adjustments. Despite focusing on those aspects, he added to all facets of the game in practice, implementing a new forecheck system while improving on neutral-zone defense and zone entries. But most importantly, under Pearson’s tutelage, he learned what’s needed to win.
And Lake Superior State is seeing the payoff. The Lakers are undefeated to this point, winning four straight on the road. Their first home game will be this weekend, where they hope to display the strides they’ve made.
“We’ve been up there many times, and it’s a tough place to play,” Pearson said. “They’ve done a good job on the road, and they’re playing much better defensively than they ever have. They’ve got a couple goalies who can just win a game by themselves.”
If there’s one thing Michigan is familiar with, it’s a hot goalie. In the season opener, the Wolverines faced Vermont’s Stefanos Lekkas, who finished with 48 out of 50 saves. Just last Saturday, St. Lawrence’s Arthur Brey was named a star for his efforts.
Lake Superior State and its goalie tandem of Nick Kossoff and Mareks Mitens is a familiar challenge for Michigan
From Pearson’s perspective, however, it’s simple. Getting in front of the net creates traffic, allows rebounds and turns the game into a slugfest. That’s the style Pearson hopes to see in the matchup.
“We got to get in front of him,” Pearson said. “The goalies are pretty good right now. You’re not going to beat a goalie too many times, with just you and him and he can’t see the shot.”
Against St. Lawrence last weekend, the Wolverines had several breakaways chances that resulted in a one-on-one with the goalie and an attacking Michigan player. None of them were converted.
“We got breakaways,” Pearson said. “(Junior forward Jake Slaker) had a couple breakaways, and he does this little move, and (sophomore forward Michael Pastujov), and it doesn’t work. Just go ahead and shoot the puck.”
Again, it’s simple. Too often Michigan fumbled the puck trying to make plays happen when a clear shot on target would have opened more options. Once the puck gets close to the net, it’s in a situation that makes it difficult for a goalie — like the Lakers’ — to best exploit to their advantage.
“We got to bear down, we got to get a little hungrier around the net,” Pearson said. “And how do you teach that? You can do some drills where you got to play it out. Play it out until you score. And also it’s just a mental thing, you got to stay on these guys about that.
“You got to be tougher on the net and shoot to score.”
Lake Superior State’s upward trajectory is in large part due to its experience. Its top lines are littered with seniors and juniors. But junior forward Will Lockwood thinks it’s a similar situation to their own.
“With college hockey, experience helps a lot, and they have a really good first line of guys that have been around college hockey quite a bit,” Lockwood said. “I think we have that same scenario as a team here. If our line gets to match up against theirs, it’ll be a good matchup for sure.”
Michigan knows it will have a target on its back when it goes go up north this weekend — a situation it is familiar with.
“When Michigan comes up there it’s big,” Pearson said. “It’s big, and we’ve got a big target on our back. We’re going to have to go there, we’re going to have to weather the storm, we’re going to have to make sure we show up Friday night and just compete and play like we can. Take the crowd out of it, that’s the big thing.
“They’re much improved, so that’s the biggest thing. They’ll have a sold-out crowd, and their biggest weekend of the year and they’ll have Michigan coming to town.”