Jacob Shames: Lavigne's solid play exemplifies Michigan's run
It all began with Hayden Lavigne.
Before Michigan’s 14-6-1 record since New Year’s Day, before it reached the 25th Frozen Four in program history, there was the sophomore, starting in goal against Michigan State in the Great Lakes Invitational.
Lavigne wasn’t terrific, allowing four goals. But he did enough for the Wolverines to win, and enough to earn a start against No. 1 Notre Dame three days later.
Despite compiling a .937 save percentage over the course of the series, Lavigne couldn’t save his team from being swept. But he did enough to assert himself as the unquestioned starter heading into Michigan’s most crucial series of the season at Minnesota.
Against the Golden Gophers, Lavigne wasn’t exactly the second coming of Marty Turco. But once again, he did enough — stopping 41 of 45 shots on the weekend — and the Wolverines returned to Ann Arbor with two massive wins under their belt.
The turning point in Michigan’s season wasn’t the product of some miracle pill. Nothing was radically different from October, November or December. Everything — offense, defense, special teams — was just a little bit stronger, a little bit more solid, a little bit more stable.
Ask coach Mel Pearson or any of his players why the Wolverines started to roll, and they’ll talk about what you’d expect.
They’ll talk about consistency. They’ll talk about confidence. Then they’ll talk about Lavigne.
“(The Notre Dame series) was our first weekend where we played two really solid games,” said sophomore forward Jake Slaker last week. “Even though we lost, we were really happy with our game. … Hayden Lavigne was kind of the starter of that.”
And not only was Lavigne the starter of that, he’s also epitomized it.
Pearson has compared Michigan’s surge to a snowball making its way down a hill; growing and growing as it continues to roll. It’s an effective metaphor for Lavigne’s own development — gaining experience and confidence with every save and every game.
“I’ve been able to string together four pretty solid games back-to-back,” Lavigne said on Jan. 18. “That in itself leads to a little more confidence where I’ve found myself playing a little bit farther out, little bit more sure of the plays I’m making in net.”
The next day, he made 35 saves against Penn State to blank the highest-scoring team in the nation.
For an encore one night later, he stopped 43 of 45 shots — frequently doing so in spectacular fashion — and prompted the Nittany Lions’ official Twitter account to desperately exclaim in all caps, “Even if they were selling goals at Yost tonight our card would get declined!!!”
Lavigne hasn’t always stood on his head like he did that weekend. But like the Wolverines as a team, he’s mostly alternated between solid and great for the last three months.
He’s had rough patches, sure — three goals in the first eight minutes of the Big Ten Tournament. But he’s been dominant at times — a shutout of the Fighting Irish on Feb. 18. And there’s been some luck involved — Andrew Oglevie’s shot painstakingly crawling across the crease and past an open net in the final minute of the aforementioned shutout.
“There’s obviously still room to improve, as there always will be,” Lavigne said Monday. “But I feel this is some of the best hockey I’ve played in my career.”
That hockey has brought him and his team to the Frozen Four, to a place Michigan wasn’t supposed to be this year.
Notre Dame and Ohio State are No. 1 seeds. Minnesota-Duluth was on this stage a year ago. Compared to the rest of the field, the Wolverines are outsiders, and they know it.
“Out of the four teams, we were probably the least likely to get there,” Pearson said last week. “ … Obviously we’re the underdog.”
In net, this theme remains. Cale Morris, Sean Romeo and Hunter Shepard all rank in the top-10 nationally in save percentage. Lavigne? He sits 39th, with a relatively pedestrian .909 figure.
But like the three-point shot in basketball, goaltending is hockey’s great equalizer. Could Lavigne outduel Morris, Romeo or Shepard over a multi-game series, all other variables being equal? Probably not. But can he take over a single game by himself? Without question — he’s done it before.
Here’s the thing, however: he doesn’t have to.
Four months ago, Lavigne might have needed to will Michigan to a victory over the Fighting Irish, Buckeyes or Bulldogs. But that’s no longer the case — and it’s the end result of a process that was made possible because of him.
Slow, incremental improvement in every facet of the game has gotten the Wolverines, and Lavigne, this far. Sure, it hasn’t necessarily been special, but it’s been enough — just like Lavigne’s run in early January.
And when Lavigne held down the fort, Michigan — as a team — followed suit.
Pearson doesn’t anticipate, nor does he want, Lavigne playing Superman this weekend. All he desires out of his netminder is security in the crease.
“He’s going to have to make a number of good saves,” Pearson said Monday. “But we don’t expect him to have to carry us. Can he do that? Absolutely. He’s had some games where we’ve given up too many chances against, but we’re going to hopefully play better defensively in front of him and cut down the shots.”
Added Lavigne: “I expect to come out there and make the saves I’m supposed to, and then make some that I’m not. I plan to go out there and hold the team in it when they need me, and at the same time I expect them to do the same for me.”
If the Wolverines need a hero in St. Paul, Lavigne might be the most likely to take on that role. But somewhat ironically, he’s done his part to make sure that they won’t.
It all began with Hayden Lavigne. Thanks to him, Michigan can end its run as a team.
It might not be fancy. More likely, it will be solid, unspectacular even.
And it might just be enough.
Shames can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Jacob_Shames.