After Hayden Lavigne saved 30 of 32 shots at then-No. 6 Notre Dame on Jan. 5, one couldn’t help but think back.
At this point last season, the junior was locked in a battle for the starting goaltender job with Jack LaFontaine when Michigan coach Mel Pearson named Lavigne the full-time starter. And by this time, you’ve probably heard about how Lavigne and the Wolverines caught fire in January and rode that momentum all the way to the Frozen Four.
This season, Michigan has looked like a Frozen Four-caliber team at times, with dangerous skaters, versatile defensemen and two capable goaltenders in Lavigne and freshman goaltender Strauss Mann who have started 12 and 11 games, respectively. At then-No. 4 Ohio State and the Fighting Irish, the Wolverines — who entered the stretch ranked 28th in Pairwise — went into hostile road environments with everything on the line.
To its credit, Michigan went out and did Michigan things on those days, beating the Fighting Irish on a national stage and splitting with the Buckeyes, in no small part thanks to Lavigne’s play in those three starts.
Teams like Ohio State and Penn State can turn every matchup into a high-scoring track meet. Notre Dame wants to grind it out and let Hobey Baker award-winner Cale Morris and a stout blue line control the game.
But Michigan, despite its 8-9-6 record, has remarkably proven that it can win both ways. At their best, with Quinn Hughes, Will Lockwood and Josh Norris, there’s no denying that the Wolverines can keep up with any offense in the country. Meanwhile, senior defenseman Joseph Cecconi, freshman defenseman Nick Blankenburg and freshman forward Garrett Van Wyhe are the ones forcing turnovers, winning faceoffs and defensively out-grinding teams to make Lavigne and Mann’s job easier.
As the first three months of the season have shown, though, Michigan is also that rare team that can lose in many ways. The Wolverines can point to their 4-2 loss to Merrimack and blame it on Norris and Hughes being gone for World Juniors, but they convincingly beat a Notre Dame team 40 places higher than the Warriors just days before without the duo.
If Michigan, without its two best players, can completely stifle a team that went all the way to the NCAA Championship without its two best players and beat Ohio State on the road when healthy, what’s the explanation for a three-goal third-period meltdown to the Warriors?
The one commonality through those good and bad games? The revolving question of who is — or isn’t — in goal.
“If you could bottle the effort in the victories, you’d be a billionaire,” Pearson said after the Wolverines’ 3-2 victory over Ohio State on Friday. “You’d sell it to every team just so they make sure your team comes out the same way and as hard every night … I think we got a good wake-up call (last) Tuesday that you can’t take anybody lightly. Regardless of the record, the ranking, whatever it is, any team can beat you, especially if you don’t play up to your potential.”
The way for Michigan to solve all those questions involves it jumping off a decisional cliff, and as it seems to be doing, start Lavigne for the long-haul again.
For every strong stretch that Lavigne and Mann have had this season, shuffling them around makes it that much harder for them to build on it.
It’s time to choose one of them, and squandering Lavigne’s recent heroics against such tough foes could be a season-defining mistake.
Ratnavale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @RianRatnavale.