The Michigan hockey team’s season ended in just about the most heartbreaking way imaginable. With 5.2 seconds left against Notre Dame in the Frozen Four, Jake Evans’ shot off a breakout scooted under Hayden Lavigne’s pads, giving the Fighting Irish a 4-3 victory and eliminating the Wolverines two wins short of their ultimate goal.
Those wounds won’t soon — and might never — heal completely. But it still should be recognized just how incredible it is that Michigan came that close to a National Championship in the first place. First-year head coach Mel Pearson took the third-youngest team in college hockey — a team that, by its own admission, wasn’t the most talented — and led the Wolverines from a disappointing 13-19-3 record a year prior to their first Frozen Four appearance since 2011.
The Daily looks back at Michigan’s season by breaking down the performance of each unit and offering superlatives before looking ahead to next year:
Michigan ranked just 57th out of 60 teams in Corsi percentage last season, but behind a revamped, fast-paced attack and a lethal top forward line, the Wolverines rebounded to have one of the premier units in the country. They scored 3.4 goals per game on 32.95 shots, ranking sixth and 11th in the nation, respectively.
Junior Cooper Marody, who led the Big Ten with 51 points, joined seniors Tony Calderone (45 points) and Dexter Dancs (28) on Michigan’s “DMC” line, which overwhelmed opponents all season. The trio’s complementing skill sets — Dancs’ dirty work, Marody’s deft passing and Calderone’s clinical finishing — fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.
The “DMC” line carried the Wolverines through the season’s first few months, but the emergence of secondary scoring pushed them to a new level in January and February. Sophomore Jake Slaker, freshman Josh Norris and junior Brendan Warren formed a capable second line, and freshman forward Jack Becker scored all of his eight goals after winter break.
From the blue line, Michigan was bolstered by the pairing of freshman Quinn Hughes and junior Joseph Cecconi. Hughes was the most talented player on the ice in just about every game he played, and the 5-foot-9 dynamo registered 29 points, including 19 in his final 21 games. Cecconi wasn’t far behind, with five goals and 22 assists.
While the Wolverines’ power play scuffled for much of the year, the unit turned it on late, converting on 27 percent of chances in February, March and April.
With all cylinders firing, Michigan morphed into a juggernaut — over the season’s second half, it was the nation’s highest-scoring team.
The Wolverines’ defense was slightly below average statistically — the unit ranked 35th nationally, giving up 3.02 goals per contest. That figure marks a slight improvement compared to 2016-2017, in which Michigan conceded 3.17 goals on average.
However, that doesn’t tell the whole story. For the Wolverines’ defense this season, it was a tale of two halves.
In the season’s first half, the youthful defenseman corps experienced numerous growing pains while adjusting to Pearson’s defensive system. While clear talent was sometimes on display, undisciplined play, shaky positioning and ugly defensive zone turnovers were routine.
During a particularly brutal stretch from Nov. 10 to Jan. 2, Michigan surrendered 4.4 goals per game. But from that point on, the Wolverines allowed a much more respectable 2.72, and the turnovers and mental mistakes started to fade into the background.
Michigan could count on all three of its blueline pairings for quality ice time. Hughes and Cecconi emerged as an elite defensive partnership — Hughes’ speed and instincts proving to be the perfect match for Cecconi’s strength and positioning. Senior Sam Piazza and sophomore Luke Martin, as well as junior Nicholas Boka and sophomore Griffin Luce, complemented each other in a similar fashion.
Despite this improvement over the course of the season, there was no saving the Wolverines’ atrocious penalty kill. To call it an Achilles’ heel would perhaps be an understatement. Michigan stopped just 75 percent of opponents’ power plays, a figure that was fourth-worst in the country.
The Wolverines were by no means a lockdown defensive unit this season, but they mostly held their own — just as long as they stayed out of the box.
Michigan’s goaltending situation eerily resembled that of two years prior, when Zach Nagelvoort and Steve Racine were locked in an early battle for the No. 1 role. Racine didn’t take control until early January, but he improved with every weekend and played an enormous role in the Wolverines’ run to the Big Ten Championship and regional final.
When the 2017-2018 season began, sophomores Jack LaFontaine and Hayden Lavigne were neck-and-neck for the starting job. Pearson had originally wanted to name a permanent starter by early November, but neither LaFontaine or Lavigne was able to separate himself. While both had strong moments, inconsistency remained the theme.
On Jan. 1, LaFontaine let in six goals to Bowling Green in the Great Lakes Invitational. It would be his last start of the season.
Lavigne took the job and ran with it, recording a .947 save percentage over the course of three crucial series against Notre Dame, Minnesota and Penn State. His confidence appeared to grow with every game, and he came up big in the biggest moments — he recorded a career-high 48 saves in the Big Ten Tournament against Wisconsin and was magnificent in a 35-save shutout of then-No. 1 Notre Dame at home on Feb. 18.
Lavigne’s season totals — a .908 save percentage and 2.81 goals-against average — won’t blow anyone away, but without him stepping up in early January, Michigan would have fallen far short of the Frozen Four. He brought stability when and where the Wolverines needed it most, and by the end of the season, it was clear that the 6-foot-3 netminder from Brampton, Ont. was Michigan’s backbone.
Offensive MVP: Cooper Marody
Defensive MVP: Hayden Lavigne
Breakout Player: Joseph Cecconi/Tony Calderone
Freshman of the Year: Quinn Hughes
High Point: 6-3 win over Boston University in NCAA Regional Final on Mar. 25
Low Point: 6-4 loss to Bowling Green in Great Lakes Invitational on Jan. 1
Best Individual Performance: Calderone’s four-goal game against Wisconsin on Mar. 2
This season was supposed to be a rebuilding one, with next year a more reasonable target for contention. Instead, the Wolverines’ unforeseen success has ironically left them with a few more questions this offseason than they originally anticipated.
But it’s not as if the questions are eminently unanswerable.
The “DMC” line is no more — Calderone and Dancs were seniors, while Marody signed a contract with the Edmonton Oilers two days after the Frozen Four defeat. Michigan will miss the leadership of Piazza, an alternate captain, next year as well. And while Hughes may very well return, the Wolverines will have to sweat it out — the electric defensemen is slated to be a top-10 pick in the NHL Draft this June.
However, all of Michigan’s other main contributors should be back. Norris, a first-round NHL selection last year, has the track record to suggest he could be the offense’s focal point. Slaker and Warren both saw their production rise from last season as well. Meanwhile, Becker and the Pastujov brothers — sophomore forward Nick and freshman forward Michael — combined for 34 points over the season’s second half.
Hughes and Cecconi, should they return, will be among the nation’s best defensive tandems, and Martin, Luce and Boka all made huge strides forward this season. And with an experienced and talented netminder in Lavigne, the crease will be in good hands.
An interesting name to watch is Luke Morgan, who sat out this season after transferring from Lake Superior State. The soon-to-be redshirt sophomore is already established at the college level, having scored 22 points in 36 games with the Lakers in 2016-2017. And while Will Lockwood’s season-ending shoulder injury in December rendered him somewhat of a forgotten man, the rising junior is one of the team’s most explosive skaters, and could be primed for a breakout season if he stays healthy.
This is to say nothing of Michigan’s massive incoming freshman class. Fifteen players — nine forwards and six defensemen — are committed for next season, headlined by U.S. National Team Development Program defensemen Bode Wilde. Also, in what would be a dream scenario for the Wolverines, there’s a chance that USNTDP forward Jack Hughes — the projected No. 1 NHL Draft pick in 2019 — might decide to jump to college ahead of schedule next year and team up with his brother Quinn.
After losing three of their top four scorers, the Wolverines will will go into the 2018-2019 season with some big shoes to fill. However, they hardly lack the means by which to fill them. Pearson’s first season was an undeniable success, and with a deep, talent-laden roster, the foundation for future success is firmly in place.
It might be unreasonable to expect another Frozen Four appearance next year. But make no mistake: Michigan hockey is back.