Through the first 10 games of the season, the Michigan hockey team’s performance was akin to Jekyll and Hyde. After jumping out to a 4-0 start, the Wolverines dropped five of their last six games heading into the Christmas break.
That inconsistent play could have been chalked up to a variety of factors. The team was integrating numerous freshmen. They were playing four games in seven days after months of being off. In their December series against Minnesota, they were missing five players at World Juniors. Whatever the lingering issues were, Michigan clearly figured out a solution after the break, racing out to a 5-1 start.
But one thing it did not deal with in the first half of the season was a COVID-19 shutdown. Now three weeks removed from the 23-day, athletic department-wide shutdown, the Wolverines are still trying to figure out how to overcome this hurdle.
“There’s no doubt about it, we’re not the same team right now that we were before the break,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “We’re just not as together, and I’m concerned about our conditioning.”
Following series splits against both Wisconsin and Ohio State, the Wolverines’ up-and-down play continued this past weekend against Arizona State. They throttled the Sun Devils 4-1 in the first game of the series, controlling play from the outset. But the following night — despite dominating the shot totals — they played to a 1-1 draw and never led in the contest.
In the second half of the season, Michigan’s play is still encouraging. With an 8-3-1 record since the break, the Wolverines’ wins have come by an average margin of victory of 4.3. Meanwhile, each of their losses have come by just one.
When Michigan is on, it can be one of the most dominant teams in the country, but it can also be difficult for a team to be firing on all cylinders, all the time. The lack of conditioning from the 23-day pause can be attributed to the latest stretch of inconsistent play.
“When you get tired, and you start to break down mentally, you’re not as sharp,” Pearson said. “I’ve been around this game a long time. You can tell when your team is in really good shape and has that energy.”
Not having the proper conditioning is an obstacle the Wolverines can overcome, but time is quickly running out. The Big Ten tournament is set to begin on Mar. 14 and the NCAA tournament kicks off two weeks later on Mar. 27. It would be shocking for Michigan to miss that latter tournament entirely; it would be less surprising if it can’t sort through its issues by that time.
One potential fix for the Wolverines: taking shorter shifts.
“Shift length … that’s one area we have to look at real close,” Pearson said. “A guy stays out for 34 seconds, recovery time is a lot less. You start lingering for a minute and a half minute, a minute 45 seconds, now you’re tired, and it takes longer to recover between shifts.”
Michigan came out of winter break looking like a strong team that had solved its problems, but it wasn’t prepared to go into a second break three weeks later — especially one where it couldn’t practice.
In a unique season, these challenges were not unexpected, but can still be detrimental to a team’s championship hopes. For Pearson though, his optimism overshadows his concerns:
“We’re good. We’re good for the stretch run.”