As the Michigan hockey team skated off the ice in Columbus last weekend with their heads hung low, the disappointment was evident.
After a strong start to the calendar year for the Wolverines, a poor showing by special teams and generally lackluster offense aided then-No. 6 Ohio State in securing a series sweep. However, the sulking seems to have been short-lived.
“Actually, the mood’s been pretty good (in the locker room),” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson after Tuesday’s practice. “Especially this time of year because … you can sort of see the end, see the finish line. And we like where we’re at.”
And for the Wolverines, this shift in mindset is a necessity. Eight games lie between No. 20 Michigan and the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. Just six of those are Big Ten matchups, and just half of them are on home ice.
Two of the remaining matchups will take place this weekend at Yost Ice Arena, as Michigan (7-9-2-1 Big Ten, 12-12-2 overall) hosts No. 18 Wisconsin (7-8-2-1, 13-12-3) in their second meeting of the season.
During their first encounter in Madison, the Wolverines had to settle for a loss and a tie. In the first game, Michigan allowed seven goals — the most it has surrendered in any outing this season — which was largely representative of its unresolved defensive troubles at the time.
But a lot has changed since November. For that reason, Pearson expects this series to play out a lot differently than it did in the fall, particularly when it comes to team defense.
“Tighter defensively,” Pearson said. “I don’t think you’ll see seven goals put up by either team on either night. I think you’ll see lower scoring games; I really believe that. I think you’ll see tight, hard-fought games. I think the intensity is going to be good, it could get a little chippy.”
Though Michigan showed signs of reverting back to its poor defensive practices in the Ohio State series, over the past month things have generally been looking up for the Wolverines’ blueline. Michigan currently averages 14.58 blocked shots per game — good for seventh in the nation — a stat that was largely on display in its recent series with No. 12 Minnesota and No. 17 Penn State.
On the other side of the ice, though, the Wolverines and Badgers are top conference performers. Wisconsin comes in at second in the Big Ten, averaging 3.24 goals per game, while Michigan trails just behind at third, averaging 3.19.
Pearson aptly described the Badgers’ attack unit as “balanced,” as nine players have tallied at least 16 points on the season. Wisconsin has shown that it not only has a powerhouse offense but also has one of depth.
“They like to play a puck-possession skilled game,” Pearson said. “The forwards are as good as anybody in the league. I think one through 12 they might have the deepest group, the best group, as far as guys who can put the puck in the net.”
Another factor that differentiates the Wolverines’ series with the Badgers this time around will be the weight it holds. Claiming the series this far along in the season could be decisive for either team.
“There’s a lot at stake,” Pearson said. “This is as big a series as they’ve had this year, and it’s as big a series as we’ve had.”
Added senior forward Tony Calderone: “I think they are a very similar team to us. It’s going to come down to who wants it more and who plays harder.”
And with few home games left, Michigan’s upperclassmen have been considering the legacy they want to leave in their final games at Yost.
“Yeah, it definitely hits home now,” Calderone said. As we get closer (to the end of the season), it’s kind of crazy how fast time goes. And Coach reminds us that we only have so much time left, so we have to make the best of it.”
With the home advantage, league standings on the line and a sense of urgency, Michigan looks eager to make these last games count.