Thursday afternoon, the Michigan hockey team departed for Minneapolis to embark on a challenging yet crucial weekend series.
The Wolverines are searching for critical conference points to help them surge up the standings and potentially get home ice for the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament.
Before the recent home series against Notre Dame, it seemed likely that Michigan would host the first round. The Wolverines were riding the momentum of a hot second half of the season, in which they’d won 26 of 30 points. But getting swept by the Fighting Irish slowed down their strides.
Now, they need a successful weekend against a surging Minnesota team that’s playing for the regular season title to right the ship.
“It’s a challenge,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “We didn’t do ourselves any favors this past weekend, and we put ourselves in a tougher spot than we could’ve been. Absolutely. But that’s on us and that’s sports.”
Through the looming challenge, though, lies a similar situation. In both of the last two seasons, the Wolverines entered the final weekend of regular season conference play looking for key points to secure home ice for the tournament.
In Pearson’s first year Michigan thrived with its back against the wall, sweeping the nation’s top-ranked Notre Dame team in a home-and-home series to make its way back to Yost Ice Arena for the tournament. But in the same spot last season, the Wolverines lost two overtime road games to Wisconsin and fell short of what they needed to host.
“It’s just like a mindset going in,” senior forward Will Lockwood said. “We know Minnesota is going to be coming out hot because they’re playing for a chance to win the Big Ten regular season. We gotta match that intensity and bring a little bit more. That’s been the word around the room, understand what they’re playing for and what we’re playing for is more important to us.”
Since the conference tournament was created in 2014, home teams have lost in the opening round just twice. From prior experience, the Wolverines are aware of what a difference home ice can make in the first round.
Playing at home two seasons ago, Michigan made it out of the opening round against the Badgers. Last year in the first round, the team’s season came to an end in Minneapolis. With little chance of an at large bid to the NCAA Tournament, a first-round loss would end this season as well.
“It’s a night and day different experience, playing at home and playing on the road,” senior forward Nick Pastujov said, comparing the past two tournaments. “We just got to make sure we do everything we can to come back here.”
Pearson is a little less certain of the advantage of playing at home. He mentioned it should generally be a sizable advantage but that hasn’t really panned out this season for the Wolverines — their home and road records are balanced, 7-7-2 and 6-6-1, respectively. Regardless, his preference is clear.
“If you asked me right now, would you rather have home ice playing somebody or have to go on the road and play somebody, I’d say, ‘Hey, I’d rather be at home,’ ” Pearson said. “Even though we’re undefeated on the road in the second half of the year.”
There’s a bit of circularity to Michigan’s position. The Wolverines want home ice for the tournament and to get it they must thrive this weekend — on the road. The recent road success Pearson alluded to is something Michigan plans to rely on this weekend in its fight to win home ice. But it’s also what the team hopes to fall back on if they don’t return to Ann Arbor.
In other words, if the Wolverines can continue with the road success they’ve had, everything they want to accomplish this season — a run in the Big Ten Tournament and a spot in the NCAA Tournament — is still on the table. And it all starts with the trip this weekend, in a similar situation as before.
“It’s going to be tough going into Minnesota,” Pearson said. “They’re playing for a league championship. They’ve got a lot on the line. So we just have to get back to our game, understand that we’ve played extremely well this second half, we’ve played extremely well on the road in the second half of the season, and we’ve won in Minnesota before.”