The Michigan hockey team boasts one of the strongest rosters in the NCAA, and was named the best team in the nation in the latest US College Hockey Online poll.
That means that each time it takes the ice, it has a target on its back.
“Every game we play, we’re the red letter … on that team’s schedule,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “The preparation, the hype, the energy that’s gone in to play us is huge.”
Michigan holds a perfect 4-0 record to start the season, but has consistently struggled to match the intensity opponents bring early on as they look to dethrone the juggernaut. The Wolverines — although winning handily in three of four affairs — have shown stretches of early struggle in all four matchups.
Michigan never trailed in its 6-1 season-opening beatdown of Lake Superior State, yet the Lakers dominated the first six and a half minutes of play, outshooting the Wolverines nine to five and winning six faceoffs to Michigan’s one.
Lake Superior State controlled the puck in its attacking zone for much of that stretch and created a barrage of scoring chances, while the Wolverines committed unforced turnovers, whiffed on shot opportunities and struggled to generate offense. A power play goal eventually provided a lead Michigan ran away with, but it looked extremely vulnerable to start.
The Wolverines sought to make their slow starts an anomaly when facing the Lakers again the following night, jumping to a quick 2-0 lead. The trend continued for a second night in a row, however, when Lake Superior State controlled the final 12 minutes of the first period and first minute of the second, where they netted four unanswered goals.
Only after slipping into a 4-2 deficit did Michigan play to its full potential, burying five unanswered goals to drown the Lakers. Yet, the slow start forced the Wolverines into an adverse position in which they had to rally and claw back from a legitimate hole against an inferior opponent.
Despite comfortable wins, the slow starts pose challenges to Michigan as it looks to manage games in a season rife with high expectations.
“We just have to make sure that we are not only ready to meet that challenge, but exceed it,” Pearson said. “… I’m surprised, because our teams usually get off to really good starts in games.”
The Wolverines secured two monumental wins last weekend to catapult to a No. 1 ranking, but they once again had to overcome early struggles to do so.
On Friday’s win over then-No.5 Minnesota-Duluth, in front of an electric home crowd for the Bulldogs, Michigan got punched in the mouth to open play. Duluth suffocated the Wolverines early, recording eight shots on net before Michigan got its first, and possessing complete control of the game script.
The Bulldogs struck first with a goal halfway through the first period, as the Wolverines continued grasping at straws with off-balanced play. They got their bearings back in the last five minutes of the period, where a power play goal settled them in, and they never looked back.
In its Ice Breaker Tournament championship winner over then-No.1 Minnesota State, Michigan managed a better start than its previous three games, but was still outshot five to one through the first eight minutes and surrendered more attack time early on.
The Wolverines have had the best beginning to the season of any team in college hockey, despite struggling to start games. Clearly, it hasn’t become a game-deciding issue yet, but with a grueling Big Ten schedule approaching, Michigan can’t afford to let the trend continue.
“It’s more in our heads,” sophomore forward Thomas Bordeleau said of the Wolverines’ approach to eliminating slow starts. “It’s more of kind of starting the game right, (with a) sense of urgency again.”
The Wolverines have aspirations for a long postseason run, but in single elimination-hockey, one slow start could prove too much to overcome. As Michigan looks to improve on an already phenomenal start, a renewed focus on starting games right will be vital.
“You can’t keep having slow starts like we have and continue to find a way to battle back,” Pearson said. “We’ve got to be better.”