As Mel Pearson sat down in the offices at Yost Ice Arena on Monday, he admitted he was disappointed with his Michigan hockey team.
Pearson had just walked in from the Wolverines’ practice, and coming off a bye week, Pearson’s team didn’t have a great Monday practice.
It was clearly weighing on Pearson’s mind. At one point, he went off on a bit of a tangent, seeming to speculate about why his players were a bit lackluster.
“I’ll be fine when I leave here. I’m fine. I’m not gonna let them ruin my day,” Pearson finished, perhaps trying to convince himself as much as anyone else.
Any of Pearson’s frustrations make sense in the midst of this season, though. The Wolverines began the year ranked fourth in the nation. But they haven’t strung together wins like many expected them to — currently sitting at 8-9-6 — and time is running out for Michigan to climb the rankings and keep postseason hopes alive.
“We talked, and we’re in playoff mode,” Pearson said. “Just like, you know, this is playoff hockey. You’ve got to play every game like it’s your last game. And I know it’s a cliché, but you really have to. I mean, you really have to show up and play hard.”
Luckily for the Wolverines, they were in nearly an identical position last season.
Last January, Michigan needed to pile up some signature wins. It responded with a sweep of Minnesota which catapulted the Wolverines to wins in 11 of their last 14 games, allowing for a postseason run to the Frozen Four.
The similarities are even deeper than that.
Last season, Michigan lost a top producer when forward Will Lockwood suffered a season-ending shoulder injury at the World Junior Championships. This year, sophomore forward Josh Norris went down at the same tournament, leaving the Wolverines comparably hamstrung.
Lockwood says he has given Norris some advice here and there and will continue to do so as Norris needs it.
The bigger point, though, is that Lockwood’s injury seemed to be a bit of a rallying point for Michigan last season. If that’s the case, he can help advance the hunger to mimic the results of yesteryear.
After all, Lockwood, one of the few players on the roster who didn’t get to experience last season’s magic, will be looked upon to help orchestrate another run. And perhaps he is already trying to help with that, as Pearson complimented Lockwood’s practice Monday despite his overall feeling about the team’s day.
“(Lockwood) comments about that,” Pearson said. “He enjoyed it, but he felt like he wasn’t a part of it almost. So no question about it, yeah. And he’s been good. He’s been really good. And he worked hard today.
“… And he wants a little taste of that, which is good, because he didn’t get it his first year. You know, we weren’t very good that year. We went 13-19. Last year we took a step, but he doesn’t get to participate, so you want that.”
Added Lockwood: “It’s weird. You get it taken away from you, and you don’t really know what you have until you’ve lost it.”
Lockwood was talking about his injury, but the same can be said for a season. At some point, obviously, it will end. There will only be one national champion, and the rest of the teams will be left wondering what more they could have done to reach the top.
Now is a point that the Wolverines may look back to in a few months, for better or worse.
No. 15 Penn State comes to Ann Arbor on Thursday before the Wolverines go to New York City to face the Nittany Lions on Saturday. It’s a prime opportunity to start climbing the Pairwise rankings.
If last season taught us anything about the Wolverines, it is that they have a penchant for playing well with their backs against the wall. When they had no option other than to win, they did just that, over and over again. It isn’t a healthy way to live in college hockey, a sport in which upsets are common a night-to-night basis, but it worked once.
And it is the reality Michigan faces now.
“You know, I think we need to have that spark,” Lockwood said. “And we know it’s not just gonna happen. And we can’t say, you know, ‘We did it last year. It’s just automatically gonna happen.’ It starts from hard work and hard work in practice. And, you know, I think once we get a bit of a spark like that and win a couple games in a row, I think we have a chance to make a run, and I look forward to it.”
Pearson shares that sense of urgency.
When asked when Michigan must get going before it’s too late, Pearson made sure to leave no room for interpretation.