It’s time for Tech week for the No. 11 Michigan hockey team, and not the theater kind. This weekend is the Wolverines’ yearly matchup against Michigan Tech, which they beat 4-2 last season at Joe Louis Arena in the Great Lakes Invitational Championship.
For Michigan coach Red Berenson, these games have become a reunion with longtime friend Mel Pearson, who coaches the Huskies. Pearson worked as an assistant for Berenson from 1988 — Berenson’s fifth season — until 2011 before taking over for the Huskies. Once Pearson left the Wolverines, Berenson has kept a close eye on his former assistant.
“Mel is nearly one of my sons,” Berenson said. “Obviously I expected he would turn that program around … I think he’s trying to build another Michigan.”
Since his arrival in Houghton, Pearson has earned two WCHA Coach of the Year awards, and last season, he led Michigan Tech to its first WCHA regular-season championship since 1975. It was no small feat, as Pearson took a team that won just four games and finished 12th in conference play the year before he arrived, to the conference championship.
Now with Pearson in his sixth season, the Huskies have struggled in their first few games, sporting a 1-4-1 record. Michigan Tech’s offense is anchored by two seniors: defenseman Shane Hanna and forward Reid Sturos. Both Hanna and Sturos have netted two goals this season and Hanna ranks third in the country in blocked shots with 14. Michigan Tech’s power play, though, needs improvement, as the Huskies have converted just six of their 34 opportunities.
For Michigan (2-1), it’s a completely different story. Through two games, it mounted only one power-play goal in six attempts. Then, in Saturday night’s 2-1 victory against Ferris State, the Wolverines scored on two of their five chances. Freshman center Jake Slaker netted one of the two goals — the first of his career. Through three games, Slaker has found his place on the first line, growing more and more comfortable with the puck as he leads the Wolverines in shots with 11. Slaker’s performance in last week’s game earned him First Star recognition from the Big Ten.
“He played an extra year in the (United States Hockey League) and I think he’s a little more mature than a player who’s coming in as a true freshman,” Berenson said. “He’s got a leg up in that area. “He’s a good two-way player, and right now, he’s off to a pretty good start.”
Added Slaker: “Of course we want to play on the offensive side of the puck, but we have to take care of the defensive zone first, because that’s the most important zone and that’s where you start to create offense.”
Success on the power play certainly helped the Wolverines, but they also received invaluable support from freshman goaltender Jack LaFontaine in the crease. LaFontaine saved 28 shots and allowed only one goal, while Ferris State was on the power play.
“It gives us a lot of confidence,” Slaker said. “If it wasn’t for him, we maybe wouldn’t have the same outcome in that game. When you have the goalie making saves, it makes your job a lot easier up front.”
It is currently a mystery who Michigan will be starting in the net this weekend, though LaFontaine demonstrated he is more than capable. The Wolverines could also start freshman Hayden Lavigne — who earned his first career shutout against Union — or senior Zach Nagelvoort, who, despite allowing four goals two weeks ago, notched 36 saves.
Senior Max Shuart is another center who has played well this season, dishing out a team-high three assists and holding a +2 plus/minus, which ranks second on the team. After playing on a line with freshman forward James Sanchez and fellow senior forward Evan Allen for the Wolverines’ first three games, Shuart practiced with Allen and junior left wing Dexter Dancs this week — his grouping from last season.
“It’s nice to play with guys you’ve had some chemistry with previously,” Shuart said. “Dexter, Evan and I work pretty well together, so hopefully we’ll pick up tomorrow right where we left off and have a good weekend.
“It’s nice to know where they’re going to be on the ice. If we know each other’s games, we can work well together off that.”
Though the CCHA no longer exists, the yearly games between Michigan and the Huskies still have meaning for the two in-state rivals. This upcoming weekend will be the 222nd and 223rd times the two have faced off. The last time the two squads played at Yost Ice Arena, the Wolverines came out with a 2-1 victory.
And for the first time in three years, the teams return once again to Ann Arbor, on homecoming weekend nonetheless.
“We know the atmosphere is going to be there, and we definitely have to start with Friday night and hope to get the big ‘W,’ ” Slaker said. “We’re very excited about it. Us freshmen are super excited to have our first (home) game against an intra-state squad.”