With more than 30 regular season games slated from fall to early spring, the college hockey season can be long and strenuous. Opportunities to pause and fine-tune during games are few and far between.
For the Michigan hockey team, there are two chances for such contemplation. Sunday’s exhibition against the University of Windsor marks the first, while the second is an exhibition in late January against the U.S. National Team Development Program.
To the Wolverines, exhibitions matter. Sunday will be the team’s first contest since losing in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament nearly seven months ago.
“(Exhibitions give) you a good indication where some players are at,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “You know, you're just playing someone else and it doesn't count in any of those statistics, so it's good. You try some things, you work on some things.”
Such a baseline assessment can be quite valuable for a team. This is especially true for Michigan, considering the changes it has seen since last year and the questions that still must be answered.
The Wolverines added eight new players to their roster — all of whom are seen to be viable options. Kris Mayotte and Matt Hunwick recently joined the program, too, as an assistant coach and volunteer assistant coach, respectively.
Understandably, it’s not yet perfectly clear what role all the incoming players will fill. It’s still not even certain how all the returners will fit in. For instance, the goaltender position still seems up for grabs between sophomore Strauss Mann and senior Hayden Lavigne.
Thus an opportunity to try different things is beneficial. In fact, Pearson notes he wishes the team had more exhibitions.
Sunday’s trial run will be meaningful for players, such as senior defenseman Luke Martin. He injured his left arm last February and had to miss the rest of the season.
“Anytime you get to put on the ‘Block M’ you gotta be thankful for (the opportunity),” Martin said. “Especially after, you know, it's been a long time coming this one. We were done pretty early last year, so we're excited. We've been practicing for a long time, ready to get after somebody that's not ourselves.”
Pearson plans on having a wide focus Sunday. He mentions his team has practiced pretty much all its systems and that he wants to see how that practice translates against real competition.
Pearson notes that he will likely start the regular season with the same lines that play during the exhibition, but that the exhibition could make clear things that must be improved before the opening series against No. 10 Clarkson the following weekend.
“First and foremost you want to win,” Pearson said. “I mean, I don't care if it's exhibition or whatnot. You want to win, but more importantly, I think, is to get as many players involved in the game and you want to see them execute the things that we've been working on.”
With experience comes understanding. Entering his final year, Martin is no stranger to growing pains. What he wants most from Sunday’s exhibition is for his new teammates to show effort. If that comes, the rest will follow.
“It'll be a little bit sloppy to start, I would imagine, they always are — you know, systems and everything,” Martin said. “Guys are going to be nervous, you know, first time wearing the jersey, everything. But it's a good game to get your feet on the ground.
“I'm excited. We're all getting tired of beating each other up everyday in practice. Ready to take it out on someone else.”