After defending a one-goal lead for more than 17 minutes of the third period on Saturday, after the final buzzer rang, after the entire team spilled from the bench to celebrate clinching home ice with a win over Minnesota, Michigan’s coaches had to make a plan.
Whether the Wolverines would be at home or on the road for the first round of the Big Ten Tournament was up in the air until the very second that senior defenseman Luke Martin chased down the puck in the defensive zone with two seconds left and sent it ricocheting back up the ice.
Michigan’s opponent was still unknown until the matchup between Wisconsin and Ohio State wrapped up, but Mel Pearson and his staff knew they needed to start figuring out what the team would do during the week to get ready. Especially with it being Michigan’s spring break, finding the balance between working enough to keep the team sharp and working so much that they get tired can be difficult.
Pearson decided to give the Wolverines the day off on Monday, but it was right back to work on Tuesday afternoon — and he made sure to schedule team breakfasts every morning of the week to make sure his players were getting out of bed at a decent hour.
“You just try to make sure that they’re not lethargic,” Pearson said. “Which is the worst thing that can happen if you let them lay around too much, or you stay up too late because you don’t have class and don’t have to study and you sleep in and then you’re just — so we’ve tried to keep them on somewhat of a normal schedule by getting them up, bringing them here. Just to keep them moving and just trying to keep your days somewhat filled with something.”
Not having classes also provides more time for on-ice work, though at this point of the year, more rest can often be more valuable than extra ice time.
Michigan opened practice the first week of September and played its first game Oct. 6, so there’s been no shortage of time to work throughout the season. What’s more important as the postseason begins is being fresh, rested and ready to go.
“Hockey’s a game of habits, and you form the habits over the year,” Pearson said. “You just have to sort of go with what you are and who you are and hope that’s good enough, which I think it is. I mean, we’re doing a lot of things and playing really well this second half.”
With Michigan State coming to Ann Arbor this weekend, the rivalry aspect of this weekend’s win-or-go-home series isn’t lost on Pearson or his players. The last time the two teams met, Michigan swept the Spartans in a series split between Munn Ice Arena in East Lansing and Little Caesars Arena in Detroit. But when these teams played back in November, it was Michigan State that got the sweep.
“It’s huge,” freshman forward Johnny Beecher said. “I think it adds a little bit of extra tension, little bit of extra emotion. I know every single guy in our locker room is extremely excited to get out there. I think it’ll add another element to the atmosphere and the crowd. It’ll be exciting to play.”
Each team is, at this point, intimately familiar with the other team’s style and tendencies. That level of familiarity helps Michigan get ready, naturally, but it also helps the Spartans get ready as well.
“It’s not like you’re going to change a lot of things,” Pearson said. “You are what you are, in a lot of respects. In how you play, whether that’s system or style. The only thing is you might do a couple things different preparing for (Michigan State), and when I say different, you might just concentrate on those things a little bit more from the last time you played them and zero in.”
The Wolverines have gone on a run in the second half that somewhat mirrors the 2017-18 team, which made it all the way to the Frozen Four. The path to a similar finish begins this weekend, and Michigan needs to advance to keep its NCAA Tournament hopes alive.
“I think the focus is going to be important,” Pearson said. “When you have success the first night, you have a tendency, it’s human nature, to just relax, just a little bit. Everybody tells you how good you are and some of that comes into play.
“But playoffs are different in the fact that you want to try to dispose of a team as quick as you can, so right now we’re just focused on Friday and then we’ll worry about how we go about our business Saturday.”