After 34 games, Michigan still doesn't have an answer in net
MADISON — In 148 days, October to March, the Michigan hockey team has played 34 games. In those 34 games, its two goaltenders — junior Hayden Lavigne and freshman Strauss Mann — started 19 and 15 games, respectively.
The Wolverines spent the regular season waiting for one of the two netminders to assert himself as the go-to starter. Neither one did.
Lavigne earned the starting nod for that first game back in early October after a dominant performance in the second half of the 2017-18 season that buoyed the Wolverines on their way to the Frozen Four. But in the first two games of the season, Lavigne allowed a combined nine goals.
Michigan coach Mel Pearson elected to start Mann in the Wolverines’ third game, a road loss at Western Michigan. Mann allowed five goals in the loss, but Pearson gave him another chance the following Saturday night — a 3-1 win over St. Lawrence.
And since those early weeks of the season, Pearson has continued to split the starts between his two netminders in the hopes that one would be the answer.
Friday night against Wisconsin, Mann earned his third-straight start after splitting the previous weekend’s series against Ohio State. But he allowed five goals in the loss, which matched his season-high that he set in his very first start.
“He made some good saves,” Pearson said Friday night. “I didn’t like a couple of the goals he gave up. They hit the post a number of times, bounced around the net. We didn’t play very well defensively. Gave up more out-numbered rushes tonight than we probably have in the last 10 games.
“We just weren’t as prepared as we needed to be. You’re not gonna give up five goals on the road and win. You’re not gonna give up five goals anywhere and win.”
As Pearson said, the issues don’t all stem from the goaltender. Michigan’s defense was loose Friday night and frequently turned the puck over in just the wrong place.
But Mann’s performance didn’t help. The Badgers’ first goal came on a shot by defenseman Josh Ess from the point that Mann didn’t appear to see. Later in the game, a loose puck around the end boards somehow bounced around the crease and trickled between Mann’s legs.
“We turned the puck over way too many times in bad places and they transitioned us really well,” Pearson said. “We couldn’t get back. We’re not the greatest skating team, and when you turn it over, it makes the other team look really fast. When you get on the wrong side, you’re in trouble getting back to pick them up.
“We’re gonna have to clean a lot of things up because we were so loose defensively tonight.”
On Saturday, Pearson switched back to Lavigne for the first time since a mid-February loss at Notre Dame, where Lavigne was pulled after two periods after allowing four goals on 23 shots.
Michigan’s defense was stronger in the second game of the series, but for the second straight night, the Wolverines’ goaltender struggled. Lavigne was screened on Wisconsin’s first goal and didn’t see the puck coming. At the end of the third period, the Badgers tied the game on a puck that went off Lavigne’s shoulder and rebounded into the net.
Pearson chose to start Lavigne because of his experience and the way he performed down the stretch last season. But after allowing four goals in a loss that eliminated Michigan from contention for home ice in the Big Ten Tournament, Lavigne, to this point, has not elevated his game the way he did last year.
“Not good enough,” Pearson said after a long pause when asked about Lavigne’s performance. “Not good enough to win a game like this. As a goalie, you’re judged on your goals against. He’s been good. He was really good for us last year, he’s been good for us at times this year. But he’s had a tough second half.”
Michigan went 5-9 on the road in the regular season, including two straight overtime losses in Madison to close out the regular season slate. Pearson always says that good goaltending is key to winning on the road, and the Wolverines needed wins this weekend.
But after getting swept by Wisconsin, it became clear that Michigan still, after 34 games, doesn’t have an answer at goaltender. And with the postseason just around the corner, there may not be time for Mann or Lavigne to fully grasp the starting job.