Mel Pearson is quick to point out that when this weekend’s series was scheduled, no one knew what Michigan and Clarkson’s respective hockey teams would look like by the time the games were played.
So, the fact that the Wolverines’ home opener is against the No. 11 team in the country isn’t intentional. But Pearson is embracing it as an opportunity to test what his team is made of right off the bat.
“It’s obviously a tough assignment for the first weekend, but a great opportunity for us, too,” Pearson said. “We’re at home. I like where our team’s at. We get to play a good opponent. It’s a good measuring stick. We’ll find where we are. Nobody’s going to win a national championship the first weekend or qualify to the tournament, but these are big games in the big scheme of things, especially down the road.”
The two programs come into the series in very different places. Clarkson went 26-11-2 last season, won the ECAC tournament and lost in overtime to Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Michigan, on the other hand, entered last season ranked No. 4 in the country, and then proceeded to fall on its face and win just 13 games.
And after that disappointing finish last season, Pearson welcomes a chance to make a statement in the first weekend of the season. But it won’t be easy.
The Golden Knights return the vast majority of their scoring from last year, losing just two players who finished top 10 on the team in points. Their defense allowed the fourth-fewest goals in the nation, conceding just 78 goals on the season.
Kris Mayotte, who Michigan hired from Providence in the offseason, has some experience with Clarkson, as the two teams were frequent non-conference opponents. He knows what the Wolverines are in for.
“In my career, I’ve seen that school a lot,” Mayotte said Tuesday. “I know it’s always a big challenge. They are an older, structured type of team. I think that’ll be a great challenge for our guys and something that, as a staff and as a team, we’re excited for.”
Part of the challenge for Michigan will be maximizing its opportunities to score. The Golden Knights are known for their defense, and the Wolverines will need to take advantage of the chances they get — particularly on the power play.
Early in the year, when teams are still figuring out how to maximize their personnel, special teams can be a deciding factor. Last year, special teams was key for Michigan in a ranked non-conference matchup with then-No. 19 Western Michigan — the Wolverines won the Friday game, 6-5, and went 3-of-7 on the power play while holding the Broncos to only one power-play goal in six opportunities.
This weekend, Pearson expects special teams to be no less important than it was then.
“We have to make sure that we’re disciplined,” Pearson said. “We have to make sure that we take advantage of the opportunities that are presented on the power play. We’re going to try to take it to them a little bit with our speed and aggressiveness. If we draw penalties, that’s great, but you have to make sure you can follow through and convert on the power plays.”
While Michigan and the Golden Knights have met only once before — in 2017, when the Wolverines lost 3-0 on the road — two players bring an element of familiarity to the matchup.
Sophomore forward Nolan Moyle and Clarkson forward Josh Dunne spent two years on the same junior team, the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers and even lived together during that time. In their second season, Dunne centered the line that Moyle played on all year. That season, Dunne finished second on the team with 48 points and Moyle finished third with 45.
Each is excited to see his friend, but it’s clear that the competition will be intense on the ice.
“It’s obviously going to be a little different seeing him in another color,” Moyle said. “But down there on the ice, he’s the opponent. Gotta work hard against him. Not going to take it easy.”
Added Dunne: “I’m always looking forward to seeing him, and we’re both competitive so we love the competition between each other. We’re both excited for this weekend.”
In Pearson’s view, playing against a friend always adds an extra level of competitive drive. And in this series, which both Pearson and Mayotte expect to be closely contested, that extra level of motivation may help Michigan come away with at least one win.