Two years ago, Nick Blankenburg was a forward.
Two weeks ago, the freshman was a defensive force on the blue line against Ohio State.
But two days from now, the freshman will more than just go back to his roots — during practice on Tuesday, Blankenburg skated with Michigan’s top line for the first time since converting back to being a forward.
“We’re changing things up a little bit there,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “It’s partially because we handicapped (redshirt sophomore forward) Luke Morgan a little bit by playing him at center. He’s a guy who likes to go up and down the ice as a wing and get to work.”
Blankenburg’s straight-line speed is somewhat akin to Morgan’s, so it makes sense that he will be out on the wing as opposed to center. In this scenario, it seems likely that junior forward Jake Slaker will play center for the top line, given that he played that position as a freshman. Michigan’s offense has been productive enough since the turn of the calendar year despite the loss of sophomore forward Josh Norris for the remainder of the season, but it doesn’t hurt to maximize speed wherever possible.
Strauss Mann might get some more playing time again:
Michigan seemed to settle into starting junior goaltender Hayden Lavigne after four solid performances against Notre Dame, Ohio State and Penn State. However, Pearson opted to pull Lavigne for Mann against the Nittany Lions in New York when the former let in five goals in less than two periods.
Many of those were almost unguardable — the product of odd-man rushes following Michigan turnovers deep in the defensive zone. Regardless, leaving Lavigne in and further submarining his confidence in an already-decided game served no good purpose. Enter the New York-native Mann, who recorded 19 saves and didn’t let in a single goal against Penn State’s top-ranked offense.
“Whenever you can get into games after a while off it feels good,” Mann said. “To make some saves and play how I did, where I did, it’s a good feeling.”
Pearson knows that he has two different commodities in Lavigne and Mann — Mann tends to wander out of the goal a little more and take risks on shots, while Lavigne prefers to sit back in the net and operate from there out. And while Lavigne is somewhat more emotional as a player who rides his positive momentum, Mann maintains an even-keel, whether Michigan is up by three goals or is getting pummeled, like it did at Madison Square Garden. For now, the question of who gets the start each night seems to be opened again, if just for a little bit.
Breaking down where Michigan stands (and wants to stand) in the Big Ten:
Michigan sits in fourth place in the Big Ten with 21 points, but the team is in an unstable, if not perilous, spot. While the Wolverines are just four points behind second-place Notre Dame and can realistically catch them with a few wins, Michigan is also only one point ahead of Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan State for last place in the conference.
Why is it especially significant that Michigan is in fourth? Seeds 2-4 in the Big Ten tournament host the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. With getting an at-large bid probably out the window barring a miraculous winning streak, the Wolverines are going to need all the help they can get to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year.
Michigan’s next two opponents — the Spartans and the Nittany Lions — present good opportunities for the team to solidify its standing or even move up the ladder. After two inconsistent series against both teams in December, nothing is a given, but a sweep of Michigan State likely means one fewer team that the Wolverines have to worry about losing home-ice advantage to in the first round. Getting four or five points against Penn State would go a long way to ensuring home-ice for the first round, and maybe even the second round, too.
“I think everybody knows what’s going on and where we are, and we want to win a Big Ten championship,” Pearson said after Thursday’s 5-1 win over Penn State. “We do talk about that and it’s within our grasp.”