When Mel Pearson looked at the roster at the beginning of the season, he viewed it through two lenses.
The first was strengths. In Pearson’s eyes, Michigan was stacked with offensive weapons. It would be a goal-scoring team. An offensive powerhouse.
But the defense and goaltending were potential weaknesses, or at least question marks. Sophomore goaltender Strauss Mann hadn’t yet emerged as the Wolverines’ starter. On the blueline, they’d have to replace three skaters — last season’s point leader Quinn Hughes, Joseph Cecconi and Nick Boka.
The only upperclassmen returning were seniors Griffin Luce and Luke Martin. Sophomores Nick Blankenburg and Jack Summers accounted for another third of the blueline. Michigan’s final two pieces were incoming freshmen Cam York and Keaton Pehrson.
Someone would have to show them the ropes, and that responsibility fell on the shoulders of Martin and Luce. It was their job to pave the way for the younger players. To lead by example.
And they’ve done exactly that.
As the season’s progressed, Pearson’s concerns about the Wolverines’ defense vanished. It emerged as the strongest part of an otherwise struggling team.
“They’ve done great,” Pearson said. “Real pleasant surprise. We’re committed more as a team to playing better team defense overall. That’s helped us immensely. … We haven't been giving up as many outnumbered rushes like we did last year or turnovers. We’ve done a much better job of managing the puck this year.”
Until recently, Michigan’s record didn’t reflect the defense’s success. Earlier in the season, it went winless through a period of seven games. When the Wolverines couldn’t rely on their offense to produce, they relied on the defense to keep the games within reach. And they did just that, losing four of the games by only one goal.
After that string of games, Michigan started collecting wins. It split series with Wisconsin and Penn State, largely because of its defense. The Wolverines almost posted a shutout against the sixth-ranked offense in the nation, beating the Nittany Lions, 4-1.
While the team wasn’t climbing in the rankings, its defense — currently ranked seventh in scoring — was. Allowing just 2.14 goals per game, Michigan owes a large part of its sustained success to its six defensemen and Mann.
“Up until after Christmas, we didn’t really score much,” Pearson said. “We needed to be good defensively to sort of hang around until we got our legs underneath us and started running instead of crawling.”
Much of the Wolverines’ defensive success is attributed to its anchor, Mann. Rightfully so, as there’s a handful of games where he was the reason Michigan won. But the skaters in front of him have played a pivotal role too.
York and Pehrson have found their roles on the team. They’ve settled in and managed the pressure well. They’ve avoided getting overwhelmed — something that’s often a challenge for younger players to do when their team’s struggling.
Summers and Blankenburg have made strides, too. Both of them add offense from the blueline.
And then there’s Martin and Luce. Through the loss of three key defenders and all the Wolverines’ struggles, their roles increased exponentially. With the team relying on them and the spotlight pointed their way, they’ve shown nothing but confidence and focus.
“I’ve gotten a lot more confident with the puck and with my feet,” Martin said. “And just working on my mental game. (Director of Athletic Counseling) Greg Harden has been unbelievable for me. He’s just helped me in so many areas. Just growing mentally and taking strides there. It’s done wonders for my game on the ice.”
All these factors — Mann, Martin, Luce’s confidence and the underclassmen’s efforts — are the reason why Michigan’s defense has found so much success in its last three weekend series.
On the road against then-No. 14 Notre Dame on Jan. 10-11, the Wolverines allowed only one goal on the weekend. After giving up a goal in the first few minutes of the Saturday game, the defense settled down and paved the way for Michigan to make its comeback.
This trend continued the next weekend at then-No. 6 Penn State. In the Friday night game, the Wolverines kept the Nittany Lions off the scoresheet. The following night, the defense lagged a bit, allowing four goals, but Michigan managed to steal the extra point in double overtime.
“It’s nice to score six goals like we did at Penn State,” Pearson said. “But it’s the zero that’s important. If you do that, you’re going to win some games. Defense has to be paramount to this team.”
Last weekend, the Wolverines split with then-No. 11 Ohio State. They surrendered four goals to the Buckeyes on Saturday night, after giving up just one the night before. Even so, Michigan significantly limited Ohio State’s scoring chances.
Four goals is uncharacteristic for Michigan’s blueline, but a bad game hasn’t ever rattled the defense. It’s always been able to bounce back and come out strong the next night.
“You can’t put enough emphasis on it,” Pearson said. “You’re going to go through stretches like that where you don’t score and you’re pressing. But if you don’t give anything up then you don’t need as much. It’s critical. It’s vital to having success and for us to turn it (the season) around.”