Michigan coach Mel Pearson knows he has a good team. He’s known since the beginning of the season — far before the Wolverines were ranked No. 1 in the country — that the unmatched level of talent on his roster would take his team far.
But there was still one question mark in his mind:
“You can’t go down to the 7-Eleven just down the street here on Main Street and buy NCAA Tournament experience,” Pearson said on Sept. 27. “I can’t scratch off a lottery ticket that I might buy later on and get NCAA Tournament experience — you can’t get that.”
Only one member of Michigan’s roster has played in the NCAA Tournament, which because of COVID-19 the program hasn’t been to since 2018. Combined with the absence of non-conference games last season, very few of the Wolverines have faced the largest pressures of college hockey. They got that chance this weekend, facing No. 5 Minnesota Duluth and then-No. 1 Minnesota State in the Ice Breaker Tournament.
Both games were hard-fought battles. The Wolverines got off to a slow start in Friday’s matchup against the Bulldogs. Minnesota Duluth took control of the game early, outshooting Michigan and ultimately finding the net first in the opening period.
It wasn’t an unfamiliar position for the Wolverines this weekend — in Saturday’s game against Minnesota State, neither team got themselves on the scoreboard in the first 20 minutes, and Michigan found itself trailing 2-1 at the end of the second period.
The Wolverines were hardly known for their resilience last season. In its 2020-21 campaign, Michigan lost 75% of the games in which its opponent scored first. Its losses were the product of inexperience, whether that meant an inability to overcome an accumulation of mistakes or the pressure of playing from behind.
Michigan has clawed its way back from behind in three out of its first four regular season games. It’s exhibited a fire — an unwillingness to lose — that’s usually seen in March, not mid-October.
“We’ve been able to come from behind and find a way to scratch out some harder wins,” Pearson said.
Early on in Saturday’s game, it looked like the Wolverines would continue to be plagued by the challenges of a young roster. A series of unforced penalties kept them from maintaining offensive momentum and kept the Mavericks in the driver’s seat.
But its recovery showed just how much the team has grown. The Michigan team that took the the ice after the first intermission was collected and unfazed by the imbalance of the earlier period.
It was a team that knew how to win.
“That’s why we wanted to play this tournament once we found out the teams,” Pearson said. “To play in games like this, especially here and early in the year. You’re trying to get your identity, set your identity, your team and how you need to play in a huge game down the road.
“… This gives us confidence, there’s no doubt about it. It’s not false confidence because we had to earn it. We had to earn every inch on the ice. We had to earn everything that we got this weekend from both those teams.”
That’s the difference between a really good team that went 15-10-1 last season and a No. 1 team with no ceiling in sight.
It’s mid-October. It’s far too early to be throwing around terms like “Frozen Four” or “championship contender.”
But with these wins, Michigan has shown that it’s the team to beat.