Jacob Shames: There for the taking
Mel Pearson’s timing was interesting, to say the least.
Sitting in the bowels of Little Caesars Arena on Saturday night after Michigan had defeated Michigan State, 3-2, to claim the Iron D Trophy, Pearson was asked how significant the victory was to his team.
“Huge. You can’t say it enough,” the Wolverines’ coach replied. “We want home ice in the playoffs. I think we were picked to finish sixth in the conference, so we’ve got something to prove.”
It’s a noticeably different tone from the one Pearson struck earlier this season. That was months ago — back when Michigan’s dismal 13-19-3 campaign of a year prior was still poignant, rather than the wisp of a memory it is now.
Back then, the Wolverines, curiously, didn’t act like a team with a ton to prove. Yes, they were picked to finish second-to-last in a loaded Big Ten. No, that didn’t mean much to them at all. Pearson said at Michigan’s media day in late September that he would pick his team to win the league if he were a forecaster.
“We don’t try and look too much into that,” said senior forward Dexter Dancs at media day. “But it’s obviously a little bit of an ‘F you,’ I guess you could say, to us. … It was a little bit of a topic of conversation, but, you know what, we’re not looking too much into it.”
And it’s been that way all season. Preseason prognostications clearly brought some motivation, but the Wolverines’ success this season has never really felt like a rags-to-riches, chip-on-shoulder underdog story. This was further evidenced when Michigan took down then-No. 4 Minnesota on Nov. 11. After that game, Pearson was asked if his team made a “statement” with the win. His response was firm and definitive.
“No, no, no,” he said. “I told our team we expect to win every night, so it’s not a statement game. We’ve got a lot of games, but it’s a good win.”
Last Saturday, then, was the first time in a good while that Pearson or any of his players had sought validation.
The timing is interesting, because Michigan has already proven itself.
There are just four games left in the Wolverines’ regular season, and at least six when you include the Big Ten Tournament. After 30 games and all the twists, turns, ups and downs that came with them, Michigan has nearly escaped the Big Ten gauntlet relatively intact.
With the victory over the Spartans, the Wolverines moved to third place in the conference standings and 14th in the Pairwise rankings, putting themselves firmly on the NCAA Tournament bubble. It’s a position that few outside of Ann Arbor would have imagined they’d inhabit five months ago.
The hard work needed to get to this point, however, has already been put in.
Michigan can proudly list a 3-1 record against Penn State and a road sweep at Minnesota on its resume. It arguably outplayed then-No. 2 Notre Dame when the two teams met for a home-and-home series in early January. The Wolverines have battled through adversity, such as the absence of key players Josh Norris, Will Lockwood and Quinn Hughes for three games due to the World Junior Championships in January, and the loss of Lockwood for the entire season after a shoulder injury.
In his first season on the job, Pearson has completely revamped Michigan’s offense. In 2016-2017, it languished, ranking 57th out of 60 teams in Corsi percentage — a measure of puck possession and shot differential — and 42nd in goals per game. The Wolverines are up to 21st and 14th, respectively, this year.
While the first four months of Michigan’s season haven’t always provided a consistent narrative from game to game, a wholesale overview of those 30 games clearly reveals what the Wolverines have proven to be — young, talented and much-improved, strong in some areas and shaky in others, with a very real chance at the postseason.
This weekend brings two clashes — one home and one away — with the Fighting Irish. Michigan shouldn’t, and maybe won’t, be punished excessively if they suffer a sweep at the hands of the No. 1 team in the nation. But a victory would likely do wonders for the Wolverines’ hopes.
“We’ll be ready and I know Notre Dame will be ready,” Pearson said Saturday. “But we had two good games with them, and we’ll look forward to it.”
After that, however, Michigan’s schedule offers no such ambiguity. The final regular season home series is a non-conference set against Arizona State. And the Wolverines are guaranteed a best-of-three quarterfinal series in the Big Ten Tournament, likely against either Penn State, Wisconsin or Minnesota — which Michigan, three points ahead of the fourth-place Gophers, is likely to host.
A sweep against the Sun Devils, who rank 56th in Pairwise, feels imperative. As does a first-round tournament victory in a series against the Nittany Lions or Badgers — the loser of which likely would see their tournament dreams vanish.
If Michigan accomplishes both of those feats, a semifinal matchup against Notre Dame or Ohio State likely awaits. Win then, and it becomes nearly impossible to picture the Wolverines failing to snag an at-large bid. But at that point, why not just win the Big Ten and remove all doubt?
It’s past the time for validation. At this point, Michigan’s identity is all but finalized. What’s left requires putting that identity into action.
The Wolverines have earned their spot on the bubble. Everything after that is there for the taking.