One goaltender — the starter — leads the team onto the ice. The other — his backup — comes in the middle of the pack, faces half as many shots in warmups and spends the whole game on the bench.
While that’s the standard routine for a starting netminder and the backup, the Michigan hockey team hasn’t been doing things quite like that lately.
In the early part of the season, junior goaltender Hayden Lavigne and freshman goaltender Strauss Mann split time in net. One would start on the first night of a series, and the other would start the second night.
But since the beginning of January, Lavigne has been the go-to man in goal, starting all but a mid-week matchup against Merrimack. Against the Warriors, Mann got the start, largely to allow Lavigne to rest as the week was bookended by three important Big Ten games.
However, in the Wolverines’ last two series, Lavigne hasn’t finished the second game of either weekend.
On Jan. 26, Lavigne played just over 30 minutes and allowed five goals to Penn State before getting pulled. Last Saturday, he played barely more than a single period at Minnesota, giving up three goals in an eventual 4-3 loss, before Michigan coach Mel Pearson elected to switch to Mann.
“I think it’s just a gut thing,” Pearson said of making a goaltender change. “I talk to the other coaches about it. Sometimes, it’s not that the goalie’s playing poorly. Like, in Saturday’s case, it wasn’t Hayden, but we needed to give our team a little bit of a wakeup call.”
Pearson is right. It isn’t completely Lavigne’s fault that he’s been taken out of two straight Saturday night games early. The Wolverines’ defenders haven’t done their job to help Lavigne, especially against the Nittany Lions where they gave up four one-on-zero breakaways.
And when the defenders aren’t doing their job, Pearson turns to Mann to provide a spark and wake up his team.
“It’s a little bit of a wakeup call to the other players when you pull the goalie out because Hayden’s played extremely well for our team,” Pearson said on Monday. “They know it. Players are smart and they understand that, ‘Hey, maybe we left Hayden out to dry a little bit. (Mann’s) getting in, we better pick it up.’ Your goalie going in, he has to be ready to provide you that spark, too. Strauss has done that.”
Mann has played about 70 minutes across those two games. In those 70 minutes, he’s allowed only one goal and has a save percentage of .966 — well above his season average of .896.
“He’s come in in tough situations but given us chances to come back in games,” Pearson said. “Especially Minnesota, we were down three to nothing. Really nothing on Hayden, nothing against Hayden, we left him out to dry.
“But Strauss came in and made some key saves to at least get us back tied. He’s looked really good. Good for him, because it’s hard. It’s hard when you’re not playing, but he’s stayed in it mentally, which is huge.”
Perhaps it’s that wakeup call to the defense that has allowed Mann such success in his appearances. Perhaps it’s Michigan recognizing that its back is against the wall when it gets into a situation where a goaltender change is warranted. In those two Saturday night appearances, Lavigne allowed a combined eight goals before getting pulled — each time leaving the game with the Wolverines in a deep deficit.
Or perhaps it’s Mann’s dedication to staying mentally prepared, even when his playing time is inconsistent.
“Obviously, at any point, whether the guy gets hurt or pulled, you can get in, so you always have to be ready,” Mann said. “I think you just kinda go through the game, keep the bench energy up and help your teammates, and when you realize there’s maybe a chance you might get in, then you start kind of moving your legs a little bit and start getting your mind in the right place in case you get in.”
Added Pearson: “Mentally, he’s handled it really good. He’s been ready. That’s what you have to do as a goalie, is you have to be ready to go in at any time because the goalie could get hurt or the coach could call upon you to go in and play just to change the momentum.”
And change the momentum Mann has, particularly against the Golden Gophers. He entered the game 15 seconds into the second period with the Wolverines trailing three goals to none. By the time the period ended, the game was tied at three apiece.
But despite that comeback, the game ended in a loss and became Michigan’s fourth straight split series.
The Wolverines know that it’s crunch time. They are out of the conversation for the NCAA Tournament based on regular season record — their only path is to win the Big Ten Tournament. There are just seven regular season games left before the Big Ten Tournament starts and getting home-ice advantage for the first round is still in play.
But Michigan hasn’t swept a series since late October, and the Saturday night difficulties certainly aren’t helping that. In eight of the nine series the Wolverines have split this season, they’ve won on Friday night and dropped the Saturday night matchup.
“I gotta look at that,” Pearson said Saturday night in Minneapolis. “Hayden’s played well, but as a team, we’ve won the first game mostly and then the second night we just can’t complete the deal. I don’t know what it is.”
The issue of why Michigan can’t win on Saturday nights doesn’t completely come down to the goaltender situation. But given Mann’s mental preparation and his performance in relief of Lavigne, he may be the key to the Wolverines sweeping a series or two down the stretch.