Against Ohio State, Wolverines will find out how far they've come
It has taken over three months, but the overarching narrative of the Michigan hockey team’s season finally appears to have found some stability.
The Wolverines brought their high-octane offense to Penn State in October and earned an encouraging split against the defending Big Ten champions. Two weeks later, they took four points from Minnesota thanks to two furious comebacks in the third period. The rebuilding process after a 13-19-2 season appeared to be ahead of schedule.
But this momentum hit a wall shortly after, as Michigan won only one of its next seven games while allowing 4.3 goals per contest. This wasn’t a team even close to being ready for serious Big Ten contention.
That is, until the Wolverines went to Mariucci Arena and swept the Golden Gophers in Minneapolis for the first time since 1977. The next week, they held the Nittany Lions — the nation’s highest-scoring offense — to zero goals during even-strength play en route to a second consecutive sweep, vaulting from sixth to third in the conference standings in just nine days.
Michigan has seen multiple scoring lines develop, including the emergence of junior Brendan Warren, sophomore Jake Slaker and freshman Josh Norris to complement the first line of seniors Dexter Dancs and Tony Calderone and junior Cooper Marody. Sophomore Hayden Lavigne stood on his head all weekend against Penn State, saving 77 of 79 shots, and has firmly asserted himself as the Wolverines’ top goaltender. In the words of coach Mel Pearson, Michigan has figured out “how to play to have success.”
“One thing that Mel always tells us is it’s about the process,” Norris said. “Especially (in the) last six or seven games, I think we’ve done a good job of sticking to our systems and our strengths as a team.”
The seventeenth-ranked Wolverines (7-7-2 Big Ten, 12-10-2 overall) will need to do that and more this weekend, as they travel three hours down the road to battle with No. 6 Ohio State (8-5-1, 15-5-4) in a matchup that will test just how much the Wolverines have progressed this season.
On the last weekend of November, the Buckeyes defeated Michigan, 3-2 and 5-1, at Yost Ice Arena. Neither game was as close as the scores suggest. Ohio State was comprehensively better in every facet of play, and the Wolverines were, in their own words, outworked.
“The makeup came off and we saw a lot of the blemishes this weekend,” Pearson said on Nov. 25. “We were able to cover some things up, (but) this weekend we saw a little bit of some of the issues that we’re going to have going forward.”
Those issues — including, but not limited to, undisciplined defense, lack of offensive depth and inconsistent goaltending — were met quite convincingly against Minnesota and Penn State. But the Buckeyes are still every bit the well-oiled machine they were two months ago.
In fact, Ohio State may be even better at this point. It has won seven of its last eight, allowing just 15 goals in those games. Two weeks ago, the Buckeyes blew out the Nittany Lions, 5-1, in State College, snapping Penn State’s 11-game unbeaten streak.
Ohio State relies mainly on a stingy defense that allows just 2.1 goals per game, with goaltender Sean Romeo and his .924 save percentage serving as the backbone. It is formidable on special teams, having killed 90.1 percent of its penalties, a figure which leads the nation.
But the Buckeyes have their share of playmakers on offense as well. Forward Tanner Laczynski is the engine that makes their offense go, leading the nation with 23 assists and ranking third with 34 points. Mathew Weis and Mason Jobst complement Laczynski with 26 and 23 points, respectively.
Yes, Michigan has its work cut out for it this weekend. But that’s just the reality of life in the Big Ten. There are no breaks, no rewards for success. Only really good teams, week in and week out.
But the Wolverines are confident that they’re one of those teams, that they’re fit to survive the pressure cooker that is this conference. Their performance this month backs up that belief.
Now, they must back it up once again.
“We go into games really confident, and we know that we can beat anybody when we play our best,” Norris said. “When we have all the guys on the same string and we’re in the same boat, we have a really good chance of winning every game.”