Following sweeps of Michigan State and Penn State, the No. 4 Michigan hockey team looked like it was ready to take off and run away with the Big Ten Conference. It finally began to look comfortable and consistent, welding talent and chemistry to create a lethal force in the rink.
Some would even say the Wolverines found their stride.
Instead, on the heels of being swept at home by then-No. 14 Notre Dame, it is clear that Michigan has a long way to go. Issues that had plagued the Wolverines early in the season were once again present against the Fighting Irish.
Michigan was complacent with leads, lacked an identity in critical moments down the stretch and failed to respond to Notre Dame’s pounding, physical style of play. Its youth has overpowered its talent at key moments, resulting in a 6-4 record over its last ten games.
“Disappointed … and frustrated would be the two words,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said when asked about the current state of his team. “Disappointed that we couldn’t find a way to get more points … and frustration in how we gave up the winning goals.”
By now, you’ve heard the story. Four of the top five selections in last year’s NHL Draft call Yost Ice Arena home. The Wolverines boast NHL talent up and down their roster; expectations are sky-high. Michigan has a top-three offense in the nation, a power play that’s nigh on automatic. It averages a solid 1.71 scoring margin, good for seventh in the nation.
But every time they’re awarded a No. 1 ranking, the Wolverines let it slip away. Michigan is one of the best but maybe not the best. The Wolverines just aren’t there yet. So where are they?
Michigan’s offense is dangerous, overflowing with talented skaters who can score at will. The two overtime periods against Notre Dame over the weekend, however, showed a skilled offense that wasn’t ready, or at least wasn’t able, to step up when it needed to most. An offense that became timid and tepid, that wasn’t able to band together and execute when the margin for error plummeted to zero.
An offense that isn’t ready for elimination hockey yet.
“We stayed at the perimeter too much,” Pearson said of overtime periods over the weekend. “We didn’t play as aggressive as we should have, especially in the offensive zone, (we needed to) use our speed more and come back and get some speed and attack with speed.”
Part of the Wolverines’ hesitancy in overtime stemmed from Notre Dame’s physical, packing defense that sat back and filled lanes, even in the three-on-three frame with more room on the ice. Hard-nosed defensive teams have given Michigan fits all season. The Wolverines barely escaped Western Michigan — which spilled Michigan skaters all over the ice with smash-mouth hockey — with a series split earlier in the season. The physical Wisconsin roster hampered the Wolverines’ Halloween plans en route to a pounding split, while Notre Dame packed the blue line and focused on checking to sweep Michigan away.
For the Wolverines to become the best team in the nation and successfully manage an NCAA tournament gauntlet — a task they have the skill to do — they must respond better to physical challenges. Counteracting physical game plans consistently, whether through greater physicality of its own or more tactful decisions with the puck, will be a key measuring stick for Michigan as it looks to get there.
It will also take time.
“You can’t go to 7/11 and (say) ‘give me an extra 20 pounds’ and be stronger,” Pearson said. “That takes time to develop, so I think we have to be patient with that. … You have to embrace the grind, love the grind.”
Luckily for the Wolverines, meeting this season’s high ceiling won’t require divine intervention. They have the talent. They just need more time.
And luckily for Michigan, it has plenty of that too.