Per man, as Mel Pearson likes to think, Wisconsin is the most talented team in the Big Ten.
The Michigan hockey coach points to the Badgers’ speed and skating ability when explaining why they’re so dangerous. But with their talent, it begs the question as to why they are sitting one point from the bottom of the conference.
“They’re very young,” Pearson said. “And they’re starting to mature. They’ve been in most games. They’ve had a couple recently that have gotten away from them, but they’re a scary team.”
One notable characteristic Wisconsin shares with the Wolverines is youth. The Badgers roster nine freshmen and seven sophomores, many of whom are major contributors to the team. Michigan, similarly, has 10 freshmen and six sophomores.
In the previous series in November, it was Wisconsin’s freshmen who made the difference, scoring all three of its goals in the series. Despite the impact, their inexperience showed as well, committing late-game penalties that jeopardized the result of the match.
This weekend, Pearson expects an entirely different team — for both sides.
“I think we’ve grown a lot,” Pearson said. “I think we matured a lot since then, and the freshmen have grown a lot as you can see by Nolan Moyle’s play, Garrett Van Wyhe, and Nick Blankenburg and Jack Summers, and you go down the list, those guys have really taken steps.
“And I think Wisconsin too, some of their freshmen are no longer freshmen. They’re playing like upperclassmen.”
The growth in Michigan’s freshmen has been evident. Even as of last weekend, Moyle broke out for three goals against Ohio State, scoring back-to-back goals to win Friday’s game for the Wolverines. Van Wyhe connected with Moyle for both of those goals, highlighting the chemistry the two built on throughout the season. Blankenburg broke open the scoring for Michigan on Saturday, and Summers stepped up to the plate after Luke Martin went down.
The upcoming weekend will be the final regular season series for both teams. Having come off a nail-biting series split against the Buckeyes, Michigan failed to secure home ice for the Big Ten Tournament. Instead, the Wolverines will need three points out of the series against the Badgers to get home ice.
“Well, I thought (last) weekend was intense when we played Ohio State,” Pearson said. “And I think it’s going to go up another level because of the implications. I mean, they still have a chance for home ice and we’re battling for that. So everyone’s still, there’s still something on the line for everybody.”
The Wolverines haven’t seen too many high-stakes situations in the season, but Pearson believes that the team can rise to the occasion.
“It can put pressure on you, but it can also excite you,” Pearson said. “And I hope it does the latter, I hope the guys are excited about that. We’ve been pretty good on the road this year. We’ve yet to be swept on the road, we’ve found a way to win and get points, every weekend we've played this year, and I expect the same out of this group. I know they’ll be ready to play, they’re anxious to get back at Yost, but we just need to play Friday’s game.”