Following the No. 7 Michigan hockey team’s upset loss to Ohio State on Friday, Michigan coach Mel Pearson was understandably unhappy. So, he decided to make a statement.
“I kicked the freshmen off the bus,” Pearson said. “And (I) talked to the upperclassmen and said, basically, ‘Hey, we need you. We’re gonna go as far as the upperclassmen take us. This is your team. This is your time.’ ”
Based on the numbers alone, it would be reasonable to question whether the team’s fate is actually tied to the upperclassmen. Put simply, the freshmen are better. They make up five of the Wolverines’ top six point scorers. Obviously, that’s not by coincidence — all five are either projected top 10 picks in the 2021 NHL Draft (forwards Matty Beniers and Kent Johnson, and defenseman Owen Power), or were already selected in the first two rounds of the 2020 draft (forwards Brendan Brisson and Thomas Bordeleau).
But to look at the numbers alone misses the full picture: When the Wolverines have leaned on their young stars too much, they’ve gotten one-dimensional, breeding inconsistency and a lackluster offense. To an extent, that’s what happened on Friday; the offense was uncreative, with all but one point coming from the team’s top six scorers.
“We need more from our upperclassmen,” Pearson said after Friday’s loss. “We need to lean on those guys a little bit more, and they have to lead the way. I will always say this: You’re only as good as your upperclassmen. Your freshmen can be your leading point-getters … but you need your upperclassmen to take charge.”
The upperclassmen responded to Pearson’s call, and Saturday’s rematch was different. Sure, Michigan still relied heavily on its top scorers in the 6-0 win — freshman forwards Thomas Bordeleau and Brendan Brisson each tallied four points — but it also found production from deeper in the lineup. Three of the team’s six goals came from outside those top six scorers, as did five of its 11 assists. These numbers were especially crucial because Beniers, Johnson and Power all didn’t register a point in the game.
The Wolverines have almost always found goals from their heralded freshmen, but they’ve been most successful when the rest of the lineup has stepped up, even beyond the Ohio State series.
On Feb. 13 against Wisconsin, senior forward Luke Morgan and sophomore forwards Nick Granowicz and Eric Ciccolini each picked up a goal, helping lead Michigan to a 5-1 victory. The following night, though, the Wolverines fell into their top-heavy trap. Power and Brisson scored the team’s only goals, resulting in a 3-2 loss to the Badgers.
Luckily for Pearson, lineup changes can foster that secondary scoring, which differentiates wins like Saturday’s from losses like Friday’s. In Saturday’s game against the Buckeyes, he dressed senior forward Dakota Raabe for the first time in the new year, and Raabe responded with a goal. Pearson also brought back senior forward Jack Becker for the weekend after scratching him against Wisconsin, and Becker, too, picked up a goal.
“It’s not a coincidence because they’ve done it in the past,” Pearson said. “And they’ve kept themselves in shape, which is critical, because you have to find a way to make sure you stay ready when given the opportunity to perform.”
None of this is a knock on any of Michigan’s lesser players. They have a role to play on the team in the same way the stars do. They also recognize that, if the Wolverines play to their potential and make a run in the postseason, they won’t be the ones getting all the recognition.
But, as Pearson said, they’ll be just as crucial in determining how far the team goes.
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