Jacob Shames: Pearson era begins with perfect 10

Sunday, October 1, 2017 - 8:18pm

Senior forward Tony Calderone netted two goals against Western Ontario, contributing to a dominating offensive performance.

Senior forward Tony Calderone netted two goals against Western Ontario, contributing to a dominating offensive performance. Buy this photo
Ryan McLoughlin/Daily

Let’s begin with the obvious.

This was an exhibition game. In September. Against a team that isn’t a member of the NCAA and finished 8-16-4 last season.

This was Mel Pearson’s first game as head coach of the Michigan hockey team — the first time in 34 seasons someone not named Red Berenson has led the Wolverines. And by the end of the season, that’s probably all the Wolverines’ 10-1 rout of Western Ontario will be remembered for.

One could label this game as entirely meaningless in terms of actual hockey — that there are no significant conclusions to be drawn.

But if that’s the case, why schedule the game at all?

Draw whatever conclusions you like. But Michigan was utterly dominant Saturday night.

The scoreline says as much. The Wolverines’ highest-scoring game last season was a 6-3 exhibition win over the U.S. National Team Development Program. On Saturday, Michigan reached that total in the second period.

Not even the high-octane Wolverine attack of two seasons ago — which averaged 4.8 goals per game — scored 10 goals in a single game. Michigan’s offensive output was its largest since a 10-6 victory against Ohio State in 2015.

The Wolverines had no shortage of problems last season, and one was quite simple: They just couldn’t score. Michigan was 42nd of 60 teams in goals per game and third-worst in Corsi percentage, a measure of shot differential and puck possession.

Against the Mustangs, the Wolverines won the opening faceoff and didn’t look back, firing crisp passes and flying around the rink. Just four minutes after the game began, Michigan had its first goal when the puck deflected into the net off of senior forward Dexter Dancs’ stick. The Wolverines were consistent throughout, with another goal in the first period and four goals each in the second and third.

Quite frankly, Michigan didn’t look like this, or even close to this, at any point last season. In their first exhibition against Windsor last year, the Wolverines won 2-0, outshooting the Lancers just 36-32.

One of Pearson’s first tasks as head coach has been implementing a more possession-and-speed based approach on offense this season. That much was on display Saturday, as Michigan finished with 60 shots on goal to Western Ontario’s 20.

“Guys just buying into the system,” said senior forward Tony Calderone. “A lot of guys are starting to hold on to the puck more, get more confident. We had a young team last year, now guys are older and getting more confident in the college game.”

It wasn’t just the volume of goals scored, but who scored them. Calderone found the net twice to lead the way offensively, but eight others lit the lamp too. Five players didn’t score but chipped in with assists as well.

Pearson attributed this egalitarianism to strong team chemistry, which the coaching staff has sought to implement while also hoping it continues to develop naturally.

“We had some good line combinations and some good chemistry,” Pearson said. “It’s hard to force that chemistry, you either have it sometimes or you don’t. There’s a real good vibe in the locker room right now and you can see that when they played together.”

Again, this was just an exhibition. After the game, Pearson and his players were the first to admit as much.

“There’s some areas we need to be better at,” Pearson said. “We need to understand that as we go forward, we’re going to continue to play against better opponents.”

But Pearson and his players have also been quick to talk of a new team spirit — a new, energetic dynamic with a new, energetic coaching staff. One could easily wave that off as cliché. But it certainly seemed to be true Saturday night.

“It was good to get out there and just get a feel for where we are,” Pearson said. “I thought it was a good start.”

No kidding.

Shames can be reached at jacosham@umich.edu or on Twitter @Jacob_Shames.