In the season’s first four games, the now sixth-ranked Michigan hockey team looked virtually unbeatable. It opened with a pair of dominant performances against Arizona State and followed up with two more hard-fought wins against a more competitive Wisconsin team. 

But in the next six games, it became clear that the Wolverines were actually very beatable. They couldn’t find any offense in a sweep at home against Notre Dame. They picked up a win at Penn State, then proceeded to get blown out, 9-5, in the series’ second game. In last week’s home series against Minnesota — now ranked No. 1 in the USCHO rankings — Michigan was overmatched the whole way through (albeit with five of its best players out for World Juniors) en route to another disappointing sweep. 

Now, as the still-yet-to-be-released second half of the schedule looms, the Wolverines will need to find ways to turn the tide if they want to finish near the top of the Big Ten. 

“We’ve been really fractured our last four games,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “Even the Penn State series — those guys knew they were leaving pretty much when we got back. Not that they weren’t there mentally, but it’s really tough. And then of course (against) Minnesota, we were without five players.” 

For Pearson, returning to that early season success starts with defense. For most of the season, the Wolverines have relied heavily on junior goaltender Strauss Mann, and he’s mostly been able to conceal any holes in the defense with some strong performances. In the first game of the Penn State series, even though Michigan only allowed one goal, the lackluster defense resulted in a late onslaught that — if not for Mann’s 38 saves — could have resulted in a third period Nittany Lions comeback.

In the following game, the Wolverines got a taste of what happens when Mann can’t cover for their defense: nine goals. But even when he does, that porous defense has consequences for the Wolverines’ offense. Beyond the fatigue that comes from long shifts in the defensive end, it’s generally hard to score when the puck is spending most of the time in your own zone.

Some of that falls on untimely penalties — Michigan has committed a lot of untimely penalties in recent games — but even at full strength, the Wolverines have struggled to keep opponents’ offenses at bay. If they can find a way to shorten time in the defensive zone or force some turnovers, they’ll have more chances for odd-man rushes and time to set up shop in the offensive end. 

“Our main focus is to get everybody back with the focus to play for Michigan and to get back to our defensive posture,” Pearson said. “ … Even though we look at Minnesota, we didn’t create much, or in the Notre Dame series, I’m not worried about us offensively. I’m just worried now (about) playing harder, playing better defensively and buying into that as a group.”

In fairness, Pearson’s Michigan teams have been known to find their rhythm in the second half of the season. In 2018, the Wolverines won ten of their last twelve games and made the Frozen Four after a sluggish start, and they looked to be making a late-season push earlier this year before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Michigan has more talent this year than either of those teams, so a potential strong finish shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. 

“This year, we have a lot of new faces,” Pearson said. “So I think it’s taken a little bit longer for them to get dialed in to play exactly how we need to play the 200 feet. A lot of them only want to play 50 feet. We have to play 200 feet.”

According to Pearson, the team expects the season to resume the weekend of Jan. 8, but is preparing to play again as early as Jan. 2. If that first date holds, the Wolverines will have all of their players back from World Juniors. 

From that point on, there won’t be any excuses.