Ask anyone. Ask Michigan coach Mel Pearson.
Odds are, they haven’t noticed a small habit Jake Slaker picked up since the start of the year.
A season prior, former Wolverine Tony Calderone took on the leadership role as a captain. He had been credited with sparking a fire under the Michigan hockey team after a film session that fueled a late-season push to the postseason — a journey that ended in a Frozen Four appearance.
But it was a smaller notion, unnoticed by many, that might define that role better.
Before every game, there’s a brief period when the players are let loose on the ice to get some practice shots in. Goaltenders mark their place at the net, scraping the ice around the crease. Skaters line up and shoot at the net. The pucks build up.
It gets to a point where there’s only one or two pucks left to shoot around with before it’s time to empty the net. And that’s where the veterans of the team clear it.
“You’re not going to see many younger guys stepping in and (emptying the net),” Slaker said. “It’s usually an older guy, usually a leader of the team.”
Back then, it was Calderone. This year? Slaker stepped up to the plate.
“I think it’s just one of those things where Tony was our captain, and he did it, and no one really stepped up so I just said I would really do it,” Slaker said. “So it was just one of those things where I just decided and ended up doing it. And I shoot for the goalies at the beginning of the game too, so I just kinda went along with it.”
It’s just another example of filling a role that needs to be filled, no matter how big or small. An action that Pearson thought Michigan had done well in its Friday matchup against Wisconsin.
The team found out close to puck drop that Slaker, who Pearson noted wasn’t 100 percent, would sit the game out to recuperate.
“He still wasn’t 100 percent,” Pearson said. “I think you could tell that, just some puck touches and that. I thought we won the game, Friday, he comes back and we lose the game Saturday. He didn’t make a big difference in the game either way.”
Slaker had been an integral part of the offense all season. With 13 points and seven goals, he is third-highest in points and tied for second in goals scored on the team. His production has powered the Wolverines through much of their tougher matchups. In the 6-5 win over No. 6 Penn State, Slaker scored a late-game goal to claim the lead for Michigan before scoring another to put a nail in the coffin. Against No. 8 Notre Dame, he responded with a game-tying goal immediately after the Fighting Irish had scored to turn momentum in favor of the Wolverines.
But Friday, when his teammates found out about his absence, they didn’t doubt the replacements could step up in his place.
To take his place, Pearson sent in senior forward Brendan Warren and freshman forward Jack Olmstead to fill the role.
“I think it’s definitely tough, because he’s been playing so well for us,” said sophomore forward Josh Norris. “Obviously Slakes and myself and Will have really enjoyed playing together, but we’ve got a lot of other guys that can fill those roles, and I thought Olmstead did a great job tonight. Warren filled in a couple shifts there too, so it’s always nice when you have those guys that can fill in those roles.”
Olmstead primarily filled the first-line forward all game. Despite no points in the stat sheet to show for it, he generated chances and made cuts that forced players to chase after him. When Warren was in, he recorded a primary point off of an assist to junior forward Adam Winborg.
“That’s the beauty of a team sport,” Pearson said. “When you have guys out, someone’s going to step up, and next man up, and we had that Friday night. And I thought we played much better Friday night.
“Sometimes, when your team’s down a guy, your team rallies around that. Little more sense of urgency, and sometimes when you get guys back, you think, ‘Oh it’s going to be easier, or maybe I don’t have to do as much,’ or whatever, and if you don’t, then you’re in trouble. That’s why we have the depth we do. It’s easy to throw a guy like Olmstead in and not worry about him.”