Almost exactly three months after Michigan went to East Lansing in November and got shut out, 3-0, by Michigan State, the Wolverines went back to Munn Ice Arena and wrote a very different story.
They won, 5-1, and followed that win up with a 4-1 win over the Spartans in Detroit on Monday to complete the sweep.
“We looked at the tape when we played them here earlier this year,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said Friday night. “It’s like a horror movie. We were so bad. And nothing against them, but we were just so bad, and we played so much better (tonight).”
On Nov. 16 after Michigan lost in East Lansing, the Wolverines were six games into Big Ten play and had only one point in the conference standings. Before Michigan got its first Big Ten win, it went 0-6-1 through its first seven conference games.
The picture for the Wolverines couldn’t be more different now. After starting out firmly in last place in the Big Ten, Michigan is now in third place and just three points behind Penn State and Minnesota, which are tied for the lead. If — emphasis on if — the Wolverines sweep Notre Dame and Minnesota to close the regular season, they’ll win the Big Ten regular season title.
In that first series against Michigan State, Pearson saw his team struggle in nearly every aspect of the game. The Wolverines blew a 3-1 lead on the Thursday night to lose, 4-3, and couldn’t put the puck past goaltender John Lethemon on the Saturday.
Wednesday in the offices at Yost Ice Arena, Pearson reeled off a laundry list of things that went wrong for Michigan in November.
“Just our overall compete level,” Pearson said. “Our execution of passing and plays. I’m maybe being overcritical, but we’re so much better in those areas now for the most part. … Just our awareness, our alertness. Just our compete level. Just our execution. Skating. Breaking the puck out.
“…We’re a lot different team. We’re playing a lot better. But we were way off early.”
Some of this resurgence has been keyed by Michigan playing with, for the most part, a healthy lineup. Michigan had five players miss at least one game in the 12-game span between the beginning of the season on Oct. 11 and the second game against the Spartans in November for a total of 11 man games lost to injury.
Three players have missed a total of four games in the 18 games since. Freshman forward Eric Ciccolini has also been lost for the rest of the season, but his 11 points in 26 games is an easier loss to absorb than, for example, senior forward Jake Slaker, who has 23 points in 17 games since scoring his first goal on Nov. 23.
But it isn’t just having healthy players that’s enabled Michigan to find success and turn things completely around after getting swept by Michigan State early in the year.
The Wolverines spent months working in practice to crisp things up, and now that the offense has started to come, the confidence has followed.
It’s somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy. When the puck isn’t going in the net, your confidence drops, and then your next shots become even less likely to find twine. The opposite is true when a player is able to break out of a slump and start lighting the lamp.
“I just think things are starting to click,” sophomore defenseman Nick Blankenburg said. “I think we’re starting to figure out the way we need to play, and I think everyone’s playing to their style and everyone’s doing what they need to do to help the team win.”
And Michigan is also demonstrating a full commitment to team defense in a way it didn’t always early in the year. In Monday night’s win, the Wolverines blocked 30 shots — nearly double their average of 15.1 blocks per game.
“It’s something that we’re gonna have to do,” Blankenburg said. “I think when all the guys are putting their bodies on the line, you’re gonna keep seeing those games where we’re letting up one goal, two goals. That’s what we need is everybody to buy in to keep blocking shots.”
At a basic level, blocking shots is a simple box-score demonstration of a team’s buy-in to the gameplan. If players are putting their bodies on the line to secure a win, it probably means that team is fully committed to the game plan and willing to do what it takes to win.
When the Wolverines got shut out on Nov. 16, they blocked just three shots and 16 across the two games.
This past weekend, they blocked 42.
Things are a little different now.