After two straight defeats against Notre Dame, things seem to be looking up for the Michigan hockey team.
It’s a strange statement to make, for obvious reasons. But in 2-1 defeats to the Fighting Irish Friday and Sunday, the Wolverines didn’t just hold their own. For substantial stretches, they actually outplayed the second-best team in the nation.
That, in itself, might constitute a moral victory, no matter how nebulous that concept is. But that’s not the most encouraging takeaway from last weekend — it’s how Michigan was able to obtain such a “victory.”
The Wolverines did it primarily with defense, a major change from the season’s first few months. For the first time since November, they held an opponent to two goals or less in consecutive games.
To Michigan coach Mel Pearson and his players, it’s the product of steady improvement and growing familiarity with the defensive system.
“We did a good job managing the puck for the most part, playing in the other team’s zone more and not giving up as many grade-A scoring chances,” Pearson said Tuesday about Sunday’s game. “It’s a team effort there, not just the goalies or defensemen, but I see a lot of improvement in a lot of areas.”
Added freshman defenseman Quinn Hughes: “It was a weird start to the year because no one really knew Mel or the coaching staff that well. I think sometimes with defensive stuff like that it just takes time.”
Hughes, in fact, is one of the best examples of that. The highly-touted freshman joined the Wolverines more known for his dynamic skating and playmaking. Unproven, however, was his ability to be an elite defensive presence as well, especially given his small stature — Hughes is officially listed at just 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds.
“At the end of the day I’m a defenseman too so I got to play good defense, especially at the next level,” Hughes said. “If you can’t do both, coaches can’t trust you out there.”
Added Pearson: “That’s his biggest question mark, what people are going to question. … Can he play defense at the highest level? We talk about that all the time.”
But over the course of the season, Hughes, like the rest of his unit, has improved on the defensive end, succeeding with solid positioning and instincts, while learning when to attack and when to stay back.
These improvements were clear Sunday. Just two days after returning from playing for the United States at the World Junior Championships, Hughes — who ranks third on the Wolverines with nine assists — found fellow freshman Josh Norris for Michigan’s lone goal.
This, combined with his defensive performance, formed what Pearson called “one of the best skating games I’ve seen (Hughes) have at Michigan.” This speaks volumes to the progress that Hughes has made, considering Pearson’s uttered a similar statement at least twice previously.
“He’s maybe not the biggest guy, but he’s very smart, very rarely puts himself in a bad position defensively,” Pearson said. “He’s going to take some chances, but the risk/reward — you have to have a player like that do what he’s capable of doing. We just tell him to pick his spots. That’s the biggest thing. Just pick your spots, understand the game, manage the game, when to try to make something happen.”
But Hughes hasn’t been the sole savior for Michigan’s defense — it’s been a team production. For one, the Wolverines, after over three months, appear to have finally found a go-to goaltender.
Sophomore Hayden Lavigne has started Michigan’s last three games, allowing an average of 2.67 goals and posting a .937 save percentage — both major improvements over the Wolverines’ season totals.
Not only has Lavigne given Michigan its most reliable goaltending of the season, but the five players in front of him are also finding their stride at the same time. Working ahead with one goaltender, in contrast to a nightly rotation between Lavigne and sophomore Jack LaFontaine, has the potential to boost the confidence of the other Wolverines on the ice, and allow their offense to open up and take more chances.
“If you’ve got a goalie back there that you trust and know is going to make a majority of the saves, that can really help,” Pearson said. “You play a little bit looser, you’re not as uptight. That can give your team confidence and that’s what we’re looking for from Hayden.”
Added senior defenseman Sam Piazza: “It’s nice to have a confident goalie and I think it’s really important for success. You need a good goalie if we’re going to make any type of run, so it’s nice to see Hayden heating up and hopefully we can score some goals for him.”
Meanwhile, senior defenseman Cutler Martin’s return from an upper-body injury has continued to pay huge dividends. While having Martin’s leadership and physicality, accompanied by the threat he poses offensively from the point, is a boon in and of itself, Pearson pointed to the competition Martin’s return has necessitated. Sunday, with Hughes back in the lineup after international play, sophomore Griffin Luce found himself the odd man out of a now seven-deep defensive rotation, but that could easily change this weekend.
“Getting Cutler Martin back really helped,” Pearson said. “It’s given us another option and forced some competition back there and competition is good. That’s one way to get players’ attention. All of a sudden you’re out the lineup and they pay a lot more attention to what they should be doing.”
For all of these reasons and more, the Wolverines were able to hang with the Fighting Irish — and most promisingly, it wasn’t simply thanks to the second-highest scoring offense in the Big Ten.
As encouraging as this may be, however, Michigan will need to start consistently winning games against high-caliber opponents if it is to make a run that would vault it into NCAA Tournament contention.
But the ingredients to do so, especially on defense, are there. Just a week ago, that wasn’t as clear.