After losing the first road game of the season against then-No. 18 Western Michigan, the Michigan hockey team was quiet on the ride back from Kalamazoo on Saturday night.
“When do you let it go?” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “When you get over it? When do you just say ‘OK, you know what, we can’t bring it back, we’re over and done with it?’”
Pearson believes the somber mood was the result of multiple factors — namely, the loss and overall fatigue from playing extremely physical games two nights in a row with travel in between.
“It’s not like you lost and you’re throwing a party or anything right after,” Pearson said. “They were subdued about it. They’re taking it serious, but at the same time they know that we have a good team.”
He also thinks highly of this group and is quick to pick out its strengths and areas for improvement. The team effort on the defensive end — as well as solid goaltending — stand out to him most, as these factors can give a team the chance to win any game. But on the other hand, the offense needs a spark to start capitalizing on its opportunities.
Pearson’s observations extend off the ice, too. Specifically, he’s taken note of leadership, chemistry, preparation and confidence. Chemistry is important to any team, as it can lead to a more competitive, cohesive effort on the big stage. Pearson likes where the chemistry is at right now but sees room for growth.
“The chemistry part of it takes time,” Pearson said. “You just can’t put it all together.”
Much of the responsibility to build chemistry goes to the veterans, and so far, Pearson is delighted with the leadership he’s seen. He recognizes the unique personalities among the Wolverines and knows different players prefer being treated and reached out to in different ways.
He views his leaders’ ability to navigate this and effectively manage the rest of the players as a major asset. The veterans know how to balance being strict on players with letting them cut back.
What impresses him the most, though, is the leaders’ effort to create a positive environment for all.
“They’re really good at that,” Pearson said. “As far as just being welcoming to all our freshmen and then making sure they know that they’re a big part of this team, that we don’t have cliques and things like that, because it’s easy to get in those groups. I mean, the two Swedish guys can just sit in the corner and talk Swedish all the time if they wanted, but we have to pull everybody together, and that’s one of my biggest things, is to make sure that we’re in it together and we lose together, we win together.
“… It’s just how they’re able to draw everybody and make everybody feel welcome, and that’s so important. Even some returning guys who maybe don’t have big roles or whatnot, we try to stress the importance of everybody on the team. There’s a reason everybody is here.”
But while the chemistry is coming along, Pearson would like to see better preparation — specifically, mental preparation in the moments before a game.
Pearson was displeased with the group’s preparation leading into Saturday’s loss. He notes that it’s clear ahead of time when a team is casual instead of mentally focused. Freshman forward Eric Ciccolini offered a similar sentiment.
“Just coming off a win Friday night I think that you got to be more prepared, obviously, and not take (the opponent) too lightly,” Ciccolini said. “We beat them 4-0 and then they came back at us hard, which we knew they were gonna, but we didn’t react good enough to.”
To Pearson, a central part of preparation is about balance. He doesn’t want his players to be too tight or scared to play, but at the same time needs them to be in the zone and ready to go right away. Finding that balance, or “sweet spot,” as he calls it, can instill valuable confidence when the puck drops.
“You can have all these things and then you got to sprinkle in some confidence, but you can’t go to the corner store,” Pearson said. “I can go to the corner store and buy some eggs, and some flour and whatever water I gotta to start making the cake and icing, but I can’t go and sprinkle in confidence. You can’t. You have to go out and earn that and acquire that and develop that.”
If Michigan can continue its strides with the intangibles then Pearson might get what he’s looking for when the oven sounds.