Fast, skilled and newly helmed — Minnesota has all the tools to be great, though its 4-6-2 record might show otherwise.
The Michigan hockey team (6-6-3 overall, 2-3-3 Big Ten) faces off against the Golden Gophers on Friday and Saturday in what Michigan coach Mel Pearson thinks is a crucial time of the year.
There’s no doubt the start of the season, with a .500 record, is not the direction the team had envisioned. So with the last stretch of the first half being a home series right before the holiday break, the Wolverines view it as a good point to turn things around and use the mid-season end as a gateway to positive momentum.
“Absolutely, we’re still looking for a weekend that’s gonna turn things around,” said senior forward Brendan Warren. “We all know what we have to do, we all have to get on the same page, and I think this would be a good weekend for that and hopefully we can get some crucial points for the Big Ten and get us some confidence and get us on a roll going into Christmas.”
The confidence boost isn’t a given, though.
Despite a subpar start, Minnesota is noted to be one of the fastest teams in the conference, and in Pearson’s eyes, the quickest in the country. Put simply, the Golden Gophers know how to skate.
“They’ve always been one of the quickest teams in the country so they like to use their speed,” Pearson said. “Obviously, they’re in a transition with a new coach but that’s the biggest thing. We have to make sure we’re slowing them down.”
Slowing them down will be key, because first-year Minnesota coach Bob Motzko has implemented a style of play that best utilizes the team’s strengths. With speed obviously at their advantage, the Golden Gophers force a run-and-gun style on the ice, which causes both teams to constantly go up and down the rink.
It’s a style not unlike Michigan’s own. Also noted for their speed, the Wolverines often run the ice to try to get the upper hand in a fast-paced battle. A slower pace could prove detrimental to Michigan, who equally relies on its speed to win games.
“We’re not a team that wants to play slow,” said senior defenseman Joseph Cecconi after a shootout loss to Michigan State. “We have too much speed in the front and the backend to play slow. To counter that, we just have to play fast. We tried to play fast. I thought we played fast, but we could play faster and stronger.”
The key for the Wolverines, however, is not to just play to its strengths, but to take away the Golden Gopher’s chances. Giving them less breathing room in the lanes creates turnovers that a fast team will often commit in the heat of action.
“We have to take their time and space away,” Pearson said. “We have to get a good start. We have not had great starts. We have had good starts. We’ve gotten the lead, but we have to sustain that.
“So I think the other thing is playing with the lead and trying to minimize the penalties too. We have to play a disciplined game, because they have a great power play because of their skill level. To me, they have the most skilled team in our league, players one through 27.”
To Michigan, the players try to approach it like any other game. The difference is that it is at home, a place that’s crucial in earning the Big Ten points needed to move up the standings.
“We got to start taking advantage of being at home,” Pearson said. “We can’t change what’s happened the last few weeks where we have a huge save, and then think of what we can do in points we need to get at some point in the Big Ten. They’re going to be tough every weekend, it just looks that way, so we need to take advantage of being at home. We’ve played well; we’ve played well. I want to emphasize that we have played well, we just haven’t finished and get those points we need.”