It’s crunch time for the Michigan hockey team.
Coming off another series split, it must begin to make up ground in the Big Ten standings. Save dropping both games to Michigan State before the holiday break, the Wolverines have split every conference series.
Nine games remain for Michigan in the regular season, all against conference opponents. Heading into this weekend’s series at Minnesota, the Wolverines are only one point ahead of the three-way tie for last place in the Big Ten. Eight points separate them from first-place Ohio State. At 26th in the Pairwise rankings, at least 10 spots separate them from a potential at-large bid.
If Michigan hopes to make an NCAA Tournament appearance, it will need to begin coming out of weekends with more than three points.
The Wolverines can start by sweeping the Gophers, who are in third place –– three points ahead of Michigan –– in the Big Ten standings. By picking up their first sweep, the Wolverines will leave the company of Penn State as the only Big Ten teams without one.
“We have (felt a sense of urgency) for a little bit now, I think,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “So that’s why coming off the (series split) –– it was disappointing you know –– at Ohio State when you have the lead in the third period. And then played pretty well but made some bad mistakes in New York –– because you can’t get those points back. And as you look at the standings, everything’s so tight. One game and you go from third place to last place, seventh place. So, it’s a huge shift there so yeah, we understand that, and we have to make sure we dial it up even another notch here and the last nine games that we have.
“I wouldn’t call (the rest of the games) must-win but the points are very critical. I mean, you don’t want to be at the end of the year after the regular season and say, ‘Well, if we would’ve won this game here then we would’ve been on home ice.’ You don’t want that, so that’s how we’re approaching this, it’s a process.”
But as far as the rankings go, Pearson sounds unconcerned.
“You do A, B, C, D and you’ll have a good chance instead of looking at the standings,” Pearson said. “We don’t talk too much to the players about the standings or that. It’s just trying to do everything we can for that next game and give them the information they need to go out and execute and have a great game.”
Barring a late-season run, Michigan will most likely need to win the Big Ten Tournament to make a postseason appearance. If the Wolverines can manage to stay in the top half of the table, they are assured home-ice advantage in the first round, best-of-three series of the tournament — and with every series split that passes, it is looking like the sole route to the NCAA Tournament.
Prior to the team’s flight to Minnesota, Pearson was asked whether he feels comfortable relying on the conference tournament to earn a bid.
“At this point I think we might have to be,” Pearson said. “The way the Big Ten Tournament is set up — I don’t want to say it’s any easier than any other league, but you have a better chance. If you can get past the first round, then you’re just in a single game format. It doesn’t matter where you play or who you play, you have to try and find a way to beat them once to move on, and that’s what it is. … And I think it’s more of a toss-up who is going to win that game because there is so much balance in the Big Ten.
“First round is a little tougher because if you’re going to be on the road, you have to go in and win two out of the three games and that’s a little more difficult to do on the road. Winning one game, hey, anybody would take that chance.”
It’s a chance Pearson is willing to take. And it’s a chance he will have no choice but to take — unless the team can begin stringing together back-to-back wins.