Once the Michigan hockey team’s bus arrived in Ann Arbor and the players started to get off, Michigan coach Mel Pearson asked the upperclassmen to hang back. The reason was clear.
The Wolverines had just returned from their Jan. 15-16 road series against Ohio State, and 18 of Michigan’s 24 points on the weekend had come from freshmen and sophomores. Pearson was not satisfied.
He told his upperclassmen that they needed to step up. And it wasn’t just about what happened in Columbus. All season, the Wolverines’ freshmen — and to a lesser extent their sophomores — have been driving the offense.
Four out of Michigan’s five leading scorers (and eight of the top 10) are underclassmen. The lone senior standout has been forward Michael Pastujov who led the team in goals for much of the year. He sustained an injury in Friday’s game against Minnesota, but Pearson said he’d likely play in this weekend’s Big Ten Tournament.
“I’ve said it before, the freshmen are great, they’re awesome,” Pearson said. “But we do need those upperclassmen. (Senior forward Jack) Becker, Pastujov, (senior forward Dakota) Raabe, those guys know what it takes. They’ve been to the Frozen Four. They’ve played in that. They understand that.”
The upperclassmen have seen what happens when the younger players aren’t there and they don’t produce, and it isn’t pretty. In the December series against Minnesota when three freshmen and two sophomores were away at World Juniors, Michigan suffered its two worst losses of the season, dropping the games 3-1 and 4-0, respectively.
Even with a full roster, the underclassmen haven’t always been able to carry the burden on their own. In their Jan. 15 loss to the Buckeyes, the freshmen and sophomores accounted for over 60% of the shots, all four of the assists and both goals. The Wolverines can only succeed when the entire roster is firing on all cylinders.
The message that Pearson gave his players on the bus almost two months ago is one he’s preached again and again this season:
“We need more from our upperclassmen.”
And he’s starting to get just that. Last weekend, facing the Golden Gophers again, Michigan’s upperclassmen showed the grit and offensive prowess that they lacked back in December.
In the second period of Friday’s game, junior defenseman Jack Summers tallied his fourth assist of the season followed shortly after by his first goal.
Becker had a slow start to the season, notching only two goals in the first 21 games, but the captain seems to be ramping up at just the right time. In three out of the last four games, Becker has come up big when the Wolverines need him most. He was the only player able to find the back of the net against Arizona State at the end of last month (a game that resulted in a 1-1 tie).
“(Becker) is picking up the pace a little bit here at the end,” Pearson said. “We need those guys.”
Facing a two-goal deficit in the third period of Saturday’s game against the Gophers, Becker fired off a shot to cut Minnesota’s lead to one. In the end, it wasn’t enough, but maybe that’s the point.
Despite a gradually increasing senior presence on the ice, names like freshmen forwards Matty Beniers and Kent Johnson still dominate the stat sheet for each of Michigan’s games. In order to find success in the upcoming postseason, that momentum will have to keep growing.
On that bus with the upperclassmen, Pearson couldn’t have made himself more clear:
“The freshmen are great, but we’re only going to go as far as you guys take us.”