Two weeks ago, the No. 1 Michigan hockey team was in the closest thing to a lul it could have.
It was playing solid hockey, but didn’t look head-and-shoulders above the competition. The Wolverines looked good, but vulnerable.
They looked beatable.
Michigan was coming off two straight series splits with Western Michigan and Wisconsin — dropping two home games in that span — and couldn’t put complete weekends together. The four game stretch saw the Wolverines drop to No. 3 in national rankings and struggle to build momentum as Big Ten play began.
Fast forward two weeks later, and the Wolverines are beginning to find their stride. They handled rival Michigan State with ease in a home-and-home series, traveled to State College and crushed then-No. 19 Penn State twice. As a result, they’ve reclaimed their ranking as the best team in the nation.
Finding success in these series’ is different from their early elite play, where they beat then-No. 5 Minnesota Duluth and then-No. 1 Minnesota State in back-to-back games. A two-game series is a chess match. To be successful two tries in a row, a team must know its opponents’ tendencies inside and out.
With a majority of its star power being underclassmen, the talented Michigan roster struggled to manage playing the same team on back-to-back nights early on. It was still building chemistry and learning playing habits within its own lineups, making it more difficult to do so against the opposition. Yet, the Wolverines still have made tremendous strides in on-ice cohesion of late.
“We’re starting to get a better idea of our freshmen, how they can play,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said Friday. “We’re getting a better idea of our sophomores, the growth that they’ve had and what they can do.”
Another key factor in Michigan’s uptick is the return of junior forward Johnny Beecher from injury. The Wolverines are 4-0 since his season debut, and he’s netted two goals and two assists in his short time on the ice thus far.
Along with roster improvements, the Michigan coaching staff has changed its approach to weekends, better positioning the team in managing six periods of hockey against the same team in a 48 hour window.
“We’ve changed the way we approach our Fridays, and then also on Saturdays,” Pearson said. “(We’re trying) to let the players, once they get to the rink, be more focused on playing the game and not having a meeting or two.”
With fewer meetings during game weekends, the coaching staff has placed more trust in the effectiveness of mid-week preparations, and its players’ ability to retain coaching points and communication throughout the week.
“We were trying to cram too many messages in a short period of time,” Pearson said. “… We were so worried about every little detail instead of handling that as the week went on. So when the games came (the players) should have that up in their computer and just go play.”
With a noticeable improvement in holistic weekend success, the new approach seems to be working. In its latest stretch of sweeps following the series splits, Michigan hasn’t trailed, outscoring opponents 21-7.
The fact that four of seven Big Ten teams are currently ranked in the top 20 makes securing sweeps all the more critical for the Wolverines to win the conference.
“I think everyone has put some stress on themselves, not too much, but I think it’s kind of well known in the locker room that (sweeps are a) really important thing to do,” sophomore forward Matty Beniers said. “When you’re trying to win a Big Ten Championship and trying to win a National Championship, you gotta pretty much win four in a row.”
With budding roster chemistry and a revamped game-weekend routine, the Wolverines are putting better weekends together and building separation in the Big Ten.
And they’re starting to look pretty unbeatable.