If playing goaltenders Hayden Lavigne on Friday and Strauss Mann on Saturday guaranteed wins, Michigan coach Mel Pearson would run with it, no doubts in his mind.
Since Oct. 25-26 against St. Lawrence, it’s become evident that Michigan has struggled to close a weekend. Fans knew it. Pearson knew it. Michael Pastujov even admitted it.
“We struggle on Saturdays,” Pastujov noted.
After that series, Michigan has failed to sweep a series until last weekend against Michigan State, when the Wolverines completed their first Big Ten weekend series — exorcising demons built throughout a string of ties and losses. Their record for Saturday games up until that point? Two wins, six losses and two ties that ended in losses.
“Yeah that was absolutely huge,” said junior forward Will Lockwood on Saturday’s win. “We’ve been getting a lot of Friday wins previous to that and to finally get over that hump was huge for our team. I think it’s great for our team and was well-deserved.”
The turnaround didn’t come out of nowhere. Pearson saw the struggles and knew something needed to be done. He needed to make changes.
“We’ve gotta clean some things up and we have to be better tomorrow,” Pearson said Friday. “I just told the team tonight that, you know what, enjoy it, but when you leave the rink tonight, this game’s over. This game’s over. So when you go downstairs and your friends or family or someone tells you, ‘Oh, great game,’ just tell them, ‘You know what, thank you, but we have to be better.’ ”
The first change he queued up was switching goaltenders.
“We’ll probably make that decision tomorrow,” Pearson said Friday on Saturday’s goaltending. “At this point, it’s open. I think Hayden’s played well but we’ve gotta find a way to win that Saturday game. We’ve gotta break this, ‘Win Friday and not do as well Saturday.’ ”
Lavigne had earned the starting job coming back from break. When the team needed his best in big games, he delivered. But the consistency in goaltending wavered on the second leg of a back-to-back series. In turn, Mann saw time in the net in the worst situations.
But after Mann displayed lockdown performances every time he was put in relief, Pearson started to entertain the idea of switching goalies on the backend of weekend series.
“He’s gone in a backup role but he played extremely well,” Pearson said. “He only gave up one goal in four periods last couple weeks in a mopped-up role, and we had do something to change the Saturday funk.
“And it’s not all on him, it’s not all on Hayden Lavigne. But sometimes we need a change, and sometimes coaches don’t want to change.”
The difference between wants and needs is something the coaching staff recognized during the game preparation.
All season, Pearson wanted the team to buy in and play hard-nose, hustle defense. The team didn’t realize they needed it until they came to grasp that changes needed to be made. For sophomore defenseman Quinn Hughes, he had to come to terms with it after his weak performance against Penn State on Jan. 26 — in which he committed several costly turnovers that directly led to opposing goals.
“First you have to own it,” Pearson said. “I think that’s the first thing is you have to own it to be able to move forward and make changes.”
Since then, Hughes and the rest of defensemen made strides in order to rectify the defensive lapses that sporadically occurred. Even amongst forwards, that defensive mentality carried over.
Against the Spartans, the team made changes that the fourth line — consisting of Nolan Moyle, Garrett Van Wyhe and Dakota Raabe — made earlier in the season. They worked harder, skated faster and put their nose to the ground to make plays.
“(The fourth line) play the right way,” Pearson said. “They’re not maybe your offensive stars, but they accept how they need to play. And I think that was a big key.”
Another key were changes made to the power play. In the Minnesota series, Michigan drew 10 power plays. It converted none of them.
To reverse their inability to convert the man-advantage, the Wolverines made changes to their special teams. After the series against the Golden Gophers, the first improvement they made was to get the puck around faster. Getting defensemen out of position was a key factor to power plays, and junior Jake Slaker noted the team needed to move the puck faster to do just that.
Against the Spartans, Michigan saw those changes pay off.
“We made some changes,” Pearson said. “We didn’t get, I think, anything from it, but we had some good looks. But we just — I thought they looked much better. But we have to continue to work on that and be a threat and that’ll really help our game.”
With the changes at hand, the Wolverines pulled out the broom for the second time this season. And it was an opportune time.
The sweep put Michigan solely in second place in the Big Ten with 30 points. With only six points separating second place from second-to-last place, a single bad week can cost a team home advantage in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament.
“Every win is huge at this point in the season,” Moyle said. “And I think this weekend can really turn around our season and we just need to continue to ride this wave.”
Added Pearson: “We’ve got five games left now and we have to grind it out. But this should give us some confidence and we’ve got a, like I said, short turnaround.
“I can’t stress enough how important this weekend was. I think we’re up on State six points now with a game in hand. That’s huge this time of year. It’s hard to make up points because everybody’s playing the same teams. Everybody is playing each other. Someone’s gonna win, someone’s gonna lose, so it’s important if you can string a sweep together.”