Last October, the Michigan hockey team traveled to Big Rapids, Mich. for its first road test of the season against Ferris State. The Wolverines were outshot 29-16, and only took the lead for good with four minutes to play, pulling out a 2-1 victory over the Bulldogs.
Of course, if it isn’t clear by now, this is a much different Michigan team, one coming off an impressive weekend split at No. 15 Penn State in which it scored nine goals. While last season the Wolverines were a young, inexperienced squad learning the nuances of the college game, Michigan (4-2 overall) now possesses a balance of skilled underclassmen and veterans eager for redemption.
Against Ferris State (2-5-1), the Wolverines will try to maximize this balance and hope it comes together at the same time. Michigan’s underclassmen carried them against Vermont two weeks ago, recording six of the Wolverines’ seven goals and seven of 10 assists. But in State College, it was the upperclassmen’s turn to take charge: Michigan was paced by the line of seniors Dexter Dancs and Tony Calderone and junior Cooper Marody, who combined for six goals and nine assists against the Nittany Lions.
“We’re gonna need the younger guys to chip in,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “They’ve chipped in a little bit, but we need a little bit more and we’re going to ask more of them.”
Whether it’s the underclassmen or the upperclassmen finding the net, a balanced attack has been one of the Wolverines’ strengths so far: Six of them have scored multiple goals throughout the season’s first six games, led by Calderone and Marody with three apiece.
Meanwhile, perhaps the biggest story of last weekend was how Michigan’s defense rebounded from a shaky performance Friday night, where it surrendered 54 shots and five goals. On Saturday, sophomore goaltender Hayden Lavigne saved 42 of the 44 shots he faced, and the Wolverines turned in a tougher, more physical effort, blocking 29 shots on defense.
The goaltender battle, one of the biggest storylines for Michigan before the season, saw a turning point this weekend. Pearson originally had hoped to see either Lavigne or sophomore Jack LaFontaine assert themselves as Michigan’s No. 1 between the pipes by this point. But with the strong performance of both so far this season — LaFontaine and Lavigne rank second and third in the Big Ten in save percentage, respectively — that doesn’t appear likely to happen in the near future.
“We rotated them right from day one and it looks like that’s going to continue,” Pearson said Saturday. “I come from a school of being a one-goalie guy, but we have two good ones and the competition is good. They push each other and I hope it continues, because if they’re both playing that means they’re both playing well.”
Whether it’s LaFontaine or Lavigne, Ferris State will have its work cut out for it regardless. The Bulldogs average just 1.5 goals per game and have converted an NCAA-low five percent of their shots in eight games this season.
Forwards Corey Mackin and Mitch Maloney lead Ferris State with five and four points, respectively. But goaltender Darren Smith might be most important if the Bulldogs are to pull an upset. In four games this season, he has allowed an average of 2.2 goals and posted a .927 save percentage.
A needed area of improvement for the Wolverines is discipline. Michigan’s special teams units were particularly impressive this weekend, stopping all eight of the Nittany Lions’ power plays. But this performance, no matter how solid, wouldn’t have been needed if not for the 18 penalty minutes the Wolverines racked up Saturday, and they know they must stay on the ice to sustain their defensive momentum.
“We’ve got to do better,” Pearson said Saturday. “To be the least-penalized team in the conference, that’s our goal. … Sometimes some things happen, but we’ve got to be more disciplined and understand how to manage that and manage how they’re calling the game.”
If Michigan is able to take the lessons it learned last weekend into this weekend’s contests and execute to its full potential, it will be tough for Ferris State to keep pace.