Though the Michigan hockey team (1-1 Big Ten, 4-2 overall) split its weekend series against No. 15 Penn State (2-2, 4-4) to open Big Ten play, the Wolverines showed many signs of a reenergized team with high hopes moving forward. As more competition against high-caliber conference opponents begins, the Daily looks at four key storylines from what was an eventful and decisive weekend in State College.
Goaltender rotation here to stay … for now
Since Media Day in early September, coach Mel Pearson has reiterated that he wants to name a decisive starting goaltender after the first eight games. It seemed that after next weekend’s series against Ferris State, Pearson would likely announce a starter.
Sophomores Jack LaFontaine and Hayden Lavigne have split time each weekend vying for the starting role. But the goaltender competition may have been a blessing in disguise, and could result in Pearson changing his views on minding the net by committee.
LaFontaine and Lavigne performed well against the high-powered Nittany Lion offense, compiling 49 and 42 saves on Friday and Saturday, respectively. Despite the shot onslaught, they stood strong in the crease, making key saves in important spots to keep the Wolverines in the game or protect their lead. This was especially the case for Lavigne, who stopped 11 shots during five Penn State power plays in Saturday’s 5-2 Michigan win.
“They’re good,” Pearson said. “We rotated them right from day one and it looks like that’s going to continue. I come from a school being a one-goalie guy, but we have two good ones and the competition is good. They push each other and I hope it continues because if they’re both playing, that means they’re both playing well.”
One of the biggest question marks early in the season may already be answered before eight games elapse. With quality starts from LaFontaine and Lavigne, the goaltenders may have proven Pearson wrong, with splitting time continuing to be a formidable option.
Adjustments carried out well in back-to-back games
After sweeping Vermont at home last weekend, Pearson expressed that whoever loses the first game of a weekend series often rebounds with a newfound energy the following game. The Catamounts had no such energy against the Wolverines, but when Michigan was on the other side of the coin against Penn State, it bounced back with a statement win over last year’s Big Ten Tournament champions.
Following a heartbreaking 5-4 overtime loss Friday, the Wolverines went right into redemption mode. With a longer video session Saturday morning, Michigan dissected the last five minutes of Friday’s third period when the Nittany Lions tied the game for the third time, followed by the winning tally just 53 seconds into overtime. Pearson pointed to poor puck management and a lack of defensive stoutness in the closing moments that led to the defeat.
The next night, the Wolverines conceded just two goals, stifling the nation’s sixth-best power play offense with an impressive 5-for-5 on the penalty kill — and 8-for-8 for the weekend — en route to an important rebound win.
“This team’s new for me and I wasn’t sure how we would react,” Pearson said. “I was really proud of our team, the mental toughness they showed. Coming into a tough place, we got it handed to us last year a couple of times. So, to come back here and win a game like this shows a lot about the character of our team.
“It’s just a learning process going forward, so that when we get into a tough game somewhere down the line, we can play with that composure.”
And from Saturday’s dominant victory, Michigan already proved it can play with composure in tough contests against tough opponents.
Seniors begin to lead the way on offensive front
Two weekends ago, sophomore forward Jake Slaker and freshman forward Josh Norris spearheaded the offensive attack against Vermont. Pearson noted how the underclassmen were stepping up while some of the upperclassmen were not.
That was not the case against Penn State. The forward line of seniors Dexter Dancs and Tony Calderone and junior Cooper Marody answered Pearson’s challenge, combining for 15 points on the weekend.
Dancs, who recorded only one goal all of last season, already surpassed that total during this series alone, scoring three and adding two assists. Calderone recorded two goals — both early in Saturday’s game — and two helpers. And Marody, who hopes to play his first full season, racked up a goal and five assists.
Despite the slow start to the season from some veterans, they seem to be playing to their potential when needed. With new heroes rising to the occasion weekly, the Wolverines are in no shortage of goal scorers, an aspect of the team Pearson finds admirable and essential for future success.
If the underclassmen and upperclassmen can simultaneously fire on all cylinders, the offense — which is averaging 32.7 shots and 3.2 goals per game — could be lethal against some of the biggest programs in college hockey.
Defensive improvements made, but still more room for growth
While the offense continues to strengthen each weekend, it can only do so much. The other half comes from the defense, an area that clearly needs to improve.
From Friday to Saturday, Michigan bettered its goal protection, allowing just two goals while successfully killing 18 penalty minutes and blocking 29 shots in the second game. However, as Pearson noted, there is still much work to be done on defense instead of solely relying on LaFontaine and Lavigne to be “the best penalty killers”.
“Last night, we talked about how we’re not going to go anywhere giving up five goals against anybody,” Pearson said following Saturday’s win. “We’re just kidding ourselves. We have to buy in and have a total commitment to team defense. We’ll score goals; we have enough guys to score goals. But we have to play a lot better defensively. I’m disappointed about that.”
Pearson believes his team responded to the message and “carried that forward well” Saturday. Nevertheless, a more consistent defense is imperative for the Wolverines to regularly beat the Big Ten’s best, let alone challengers like in-state rival Ferris State this upcoming weekend.