The No. 2 Michigan hockey team arguably secured its biggest wins of the season in its sweep of then-No. 11 Ohio State over the weekend. With the Buckeyes near the top of the Big Ten standings while the Wolverines were also missing their four best skaters at the Olympics, the wins stabilized Michigan’s playoff push.
The sweep, however, hasn’t given Michigan coach Mel Pearson added comfort.
Instead, he’s lost sleep over it.
“I didn’t get much sleep last night or the night before,” Pearson said. “… You know when you have something special, you know when you have that chemistry that you can’t go down and buy at the store, and we have that right now. … And now we get four really good players coming back, but our team has been so in-sync, so good, you don’t want to mess with that.”
Indeed, the Wolverines’ play puts Michigan’s coaching staff in quite the dilemma. The Wolverines were already in a rhythm before sophomore forwards Kent Johnson, Matty Beniers and Brendan Brisson and sophomore defenseman Owen Power traveled to Beijing, but the team improved throughout its last four games.
With only two regular-season games left — a series at No. 9 Notre Dame that will effectively decide if the Wolverines or No. 4 Minnesota win the conference — Pearson has difficult decisions surrounding how to reacclimate the Olympians onto the team in a way that doesn’t disrupt its chemistry, even if that disruption is brief.
“This team is playing as well as we have all year,” Pearson said. “And now you get these guys coming back … (but) they haven’t been in the grind. They’ve been off halfway across the world thinking about something else, but the guys here have been (here) every day grinding.”
That’s not to say Pearson doesn’t support his players’ Olympic endeavors. He’s been in approval of the skaters’ once-in-a-lifetime chance to represent their countries on the global stage since they were first selected.
It does, however, shed light onto his thought process: that Michigan is in a groove and doesn’t have any games to spare in getting the Olympic stars back on board. The Wolverines may not have time to waste, but they also don’t want to leave extremely talented skaters off the ice.
“You run the gamut by just saying, ‘Hey let’s play the same group Friday night, why not? Just keep winning, why mess with that?’ ” Pearson said when asked about strategies for managing the skaters’ return. “And then you say, ‘Well, we’ve got the number one pick, we’ve got the number two pick, we’ve got the number five pick in the draft and we’re not gonna play those guys when they come back?’
“I don’t think that’s going to be the case, but we owe it to our team and each individual to go through each scenario and think about it.”
Dressing the Olympians on Friday night makes for a quick turnaround, while also reshuffling lines. Had Michigan struggled over the past four games, reorganizing the lines with the newly-returned Olympians would be an easy decision. But with the line pairings’ recent success and the Olympians potentially needing more time to return to their pre-travel form, the answer is far less clear.
And the search for that answer has sparked what Pearson calls “healthy discussion,” among his coaching staff.
“You should have been in the room this morning,” Pearson said. “Oh boy, we had a hell of a conversation this morning. Just about players and adding guys back in and where do we slot them. … It was good, but it’s important to discuss all those things to get everyone’s view on it, and at the end of the day to make a decision.”
Although the stakes are high, Pearsons’ problem is a good one to have. He has too much talent on his roster, not too little. But it’s a difficult decision nonetheless: add in the Olympians right away and risk foiling the team’s current groove, or take time integrating them and risk losing games in the process?
It’s the decision Pearson will have to make, and with the postseason looming, he’ll need it to be the right one.