The Michigan hockey team that tied its last regular season home game at one-all against Arizona State is not the same team that annihilated the Sun Devils, 8-1, in its season opener three months earlier. And that’s OK.
The Wolverines have been a lot of different teams over the course of the season. In November, they were a dominant scoring team, relying on the prowess of a dynamic freshman class. In December, they were a team that couldn’t finish a game, struggling to generate offensive momentum. In January, Michigan was a fast, skill-based team that struggled to match opponents with more physical styles of play.
Underlying these different identities has been issues surrounding mentality. Some nights, the Wolverines look completely dialed in, while on others they’ve struggled to play from behind or taken its foot off the gas.
“We’ve learned some lessons the hard way from the Michigan State game,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “We had a lead late (and lost). … So there’s been lessons there.”
The team that scores first has won in all but three of the Wolverines’ games. Michigan has come back from an early deficit three times and failed to do so eight. In five of its eight losses, it didn’t get on the board until the second period or later. While the Wolverines didn’t win their most recent contest against Arizona State outright, they proved that they can keep fighting all the way through.
On Saturday, Michigan looked like a team ready to play on someone else’s terms. Gone was the hesitation to play a gritty, physical game or the mental barriers that have hindered it in the past. Though it ended in their first tie, the Wolverines looked like a team ready to battle.
After a scoreless first period, Michigan found itself stuck in a second-period stalemate with the Sun Devils. But the Wolverines didn’t take a foot off the gas or camp out in the penalty box. They kept driving the puck to the net, outshooting Arizona State in the first two periods by 10 and three shots, respectively.
With one minute left on the clock in the second period, the Sun Devils fired the puck from just inside the blue line. As junior goaltender Strauss Mann moved right to block the shot, Arizona State forward Dominic Garcia deflected it left in front of the crease, sending the puck between the pipes.
The Wolverines’ one-goal deficit didn’t last long, though. On the next play — just 23 seconds later — a behind-the-net pass from sophomore forward Nick Granowicz found senior forward Jack Becker in front of the goal for an equalizer.
Becker attributes the team’s performance to becoming more resilient.
“Something that we’ve talked a lot about as a team is being resilient and sticking with it,” Becker said. “No matter how good you are, things aren’t always gonna go your way, and if you aren’t resilient or show that perseverance to adversity, you’re not going to go anywhere.”
The game remained tied through the third, but not for lack of effort on Michigan’s part. The Wolverines came into the last period with guns blazing, putting 18 shots on goal compared to the Sun Devils’ two.
Instead of getting nervous or losing confidence once shots weren’t falling, Michigan entered the overtime calm and collected, though they registered only one shot before time ran out. Despite the end result, Pearson was happy with the effort his players put in, especially in the third period.
None of this is to say that a shift in mentality will remedy all the Wolverines’ mid-season troubles. The game was far from perfect — evidenced by the fact that Michigan didn’t make it on the board until the 39th minute and ended in a tie — but its perseverance is worth noting. In all eight of its losses, Michigan struck second, if at all.
Pearson thinks that perseverance is something new players can only learn from in-game experiences, and the Wolverines have had their fair share. Having younger players, Pearson isn’t surprised that it’s taken some time — and being burned once or twice — to realize the grit it takes to keep kicking when you’re down.
Grit, perseverance and resiliency aren’t words that often describe any of the Wolverines’ shifting identities this season, but maybe Saturday’s game was indicative of another shift coming at just the right time.
As the post-season approaches, Michigan will have other hard-fought battles and maybe an added dimension of resilience can help it meet the expectations set in November.
It all depends on which team shows up.