Notebook: Disciplined defense fuels Wolverines in recent surge

Wednesday, February 21, 2018 - 6:39pm

Mel Pearson believes that his team is controlling the puck in the offense zone better than it has in the past.

Mel Pearson believes that his team is controlling the puck in the offense zone better than it has in the past. Buy this photo
Sam Mousigian/Daily

During the last weekend of January, the Michigan hockey team suffered two straight defeats to Ohio State.

There are much worse things than going on the road and being swept by the sixth-ranked team in the country. But Wolverines coach Mel Pearson saw it slightly differently.

“At Ohio State we beat ourselves,” Pearson said Tuesday. “They’re a good team, I give them credit, they’ve got good players but we beat ourselves down there. … Giving (the puck) away too much and then being caught out of position defensively.”

Over Michigan’s last six games, however, the exact opposite has occurred. Since Feb. 2, the Wolverines have given up exactly two goals per game, a display that Pearson attributes to “a little bit of everything.”

Last weekend’s series against then-No. 1 Notre Dame perhaps best encapsulates this. Michigan allowed two power-play goals on Friday and nothing else. Both contests seemed to follow a similar script — the Wolverines came out on fire, controlling the puck in the Fighting Irish zone, and then calmly settled back in front of their own net after gaining the lead, absorbing Notre Dame’s desperate attacking efforts with disciplined team defense.

“I think we’re managing the puck better — by that, I mean we’re controlling it in the offensive zone, we’re playing with it more,” Pearson said. “In our defensive zone we’re doing a much better job of our defensive zone system, and that’s allowed us not to give up as many grade-A chances. It’s just better overall team defense which starts in net and it starts with our play with the puck. We’re managing, holding on to it and possessing it more.”

The mistakes Michigan made against the Buckeyes never reared their ugly heads against the Fighting Irish, signaling the latest step in the full implementation of Pearson’s overall offensive and defensive system.

“We’re not beating ourselves,” Pearson said. “Our risk-reward — we’re picking our spots when to get on the offensive side of the puck. Before we were just selling out offensively with turnovers and we’d get trapped. I don’t think Notre Dame — I don’t know if they had any two-on-ones — we’re giving up a limited number of odd number rushes.”

Added junior defenseman Joseph Cecconi: “We always preach playing the right side of the puck, playing the defensive side because that creates offense. If you’re playing good defense, you’re probably playing good offense.”

New Big Ten Tournament format

Michigan’s win in South Bend on Friday, coupled with Michigan State defeating Penn State, would have been just another night in the Big Ten — albeit a very significant one — if it had taken place a year ago.

Instead, Friday’s results locked the Wolverines into hosting the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. Unlike the format from previous seasons, which took place over a single weekend at a neutral location, this year’s conference tournament is a three-week event that will take place at campus sites.

“Yost Ice Arena — when it gets rocking it’s a home ice advantage. This Sunday proved that,” Pearson said. “We’re a better team at home. It’s going to be tough wherever you play, but it’s really important that you get home ice and you get that crowd behind you. It’s like you start at one-nothing.”

For Pearson, nothing’s changed. Last season, he coached Michigan Tech to a victory in the WCHA Tournament, which followed almost the exact same format.

“I thought it was outstanding,” Pearson said. “... The crowds were great and I remember Bowling Green in the last game saying they couldn’t believe it — sold-out building, great atmosphere for both teams, and that’s what you’re trying to get instead of playing in a 15, 16 thousand seat building where you get three thousand people. We’re trying to create that atmosphere in the Big Ten and I think it’s a great move.”

There are a few changes to the system that Pearson would like to see. While the first round is a best-of-three series, the semifinal and final rounds are both single games.

In the seven-team tournament, the top seed — Notre Dame — has a bye for the first round, meaning that if it lost its semifinal game, it would enter the NCAA Tournament having played only once in nearly a month — a disadvantageous situation that Pearson would like to guard against.

“I’ll put my two cents in this year,” Pearson said. “I think it will be this spring in April when we have the Big Ten hockey meetings. It’ll come up again, I’m going to bring it up and then (Notre Dame coach Jeff) Jackson will bring it up.”

A deceptive test

The Wolverines came into last weekend with an all-or-nothing mentality. Failing to earn points of any kind against the Fighting Irish would have been a serious, while not fatal, blow to their hopes at securing an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament.

Instead, Michigan shot up to No. 11 in the Pairwise rankings, and according to College Hockey News, it possesses a 95 percent chance of qualifying for the postseason. The Wolverines are safely in the field — for now.

This weekend’s regular-season finale against Arizona State is by no means challenging, per se. The Sun Devils, in just their third season as a fully-fledged Division I team, rank 55th out of 60 teams in Pairwise.

But at this time of year, opponents such as Arizona State can be even scarier than teams like Notre Dame. For all that was gained last weekend, Michigan falling on its face against the Sun Devils — the weakest team on its schedule — would take that all away, and then some.

“Last weekend was huge for us, winning against Notre Dame, but if we can’t keep focused this weekend it’s all for nothing,” said sophomore forward Adam Winborg. “We have to come out and play our best hockey again.”

Of course, Arizona State is No. 55 in Pairwise for a reason. Losing even one of the next two games is far from likely. But don’t tell the Wolverines that.

“We have to treat Arizona State like a No. 1 team,” Cecconi said. “If we don’t beat them twice that’s going to hurt us big time in the Pairwise. We have to prepare basically just like any other game, any other Big Ten game. It might be these two games are the most important for our season.”