Two weeks in January: How Michigan became a national title contender

Wednesday, March 28, 2018 - 6:57pm

Michigan coach Mel Pearson and his team turned things around over two weeks in January.

Michigan coach Mel Pearson and his team turned things around over two weeks in January. Buy this photo
Sam Mousigian/Daily

It’s March 29, 2018. The Michigan hockey team is in the Frozen Four, two games away from winning the 10th national championship in program history.

Think back to March 16, 2017. Three early Penn State goals handed the Wolverines a quick exit from the Big Ten Tournament, a merciful end to their worst season in three decades.

Think back to April 10, 2017. After 33 storied years behind the Michigan bench, coach Red Berenson announced his retirement, leaving behind a program firmly entrenched in a rebuild and with no one in charge of construction.

Last weekend, a 6-3 win over Boston University in the NCAA Northeast Regional Final made it clear that the Wolverines’ rebuilding phase was over. But the victory wasn’t quite an emphatic declaration that “Michigan is back.” In reality, that’s a statement that the Wolverines have spent the last two months making.

It’s a statement that began with two weeks in January.

***

The first day of 2018 marked the Wolverines’ nadir. In the opener of the Great Lakes Invitational, a mediocre Bowling Green team fired four goals past sophomore goaltender Jack LaFontaine within the game’s first 24 minutes. Michigan’s comeback effort fell short, and it settled for a disappointing third-place finish in the tournament.

Coming off a third-place GLI finish in 2017, Michigan was 8-9-1 and 1-3 in conference play. This season appeared different at first, but for all the promise the Wolverines showed in a road win at defending Big Ten champion Penn State and a win and a tie against then-No. 4 Minnesota, their record on Jan. 2 sat at just 8-8-2, and 3-5-2 in the Big Ten. Nothing seemed to hint at anything other than last season’s fate.

“We weren’t at a happy point in our season,” said sophomore forward Jake Slaker. “But we still had a lot of games left, and we knew we could turn it around.”

Looming next on the Wolverines’ schedule, however, was then-No. 2 Notre Dame, which had yet to lose a Big Ten game. Michigan met the Fighting Irish at Yost Ice Arena coming off just two days of rest and without freshman forward Josh Norris, sophomore forward Will Lockwood and freshman defenseman Quinn Hughes, all of whom were then competing for the United States at the World Junior Championships.

Five minutes into the game, Notre Dame scored a power-play goal. Five minutes later, it added another. The Fighting Irish machine was operating exactly how it was supposed to. Until suddenly, it wasn’t.

Senior forward Tony Calderone slid a goal past Notre Dame goaltender Cale Morris to halve the Wolverines’ deficit in the first period. Michigan outshot the Fighting Irish by almost double during the game’s final 50 minutes, producing odd-man rushes and grade-A scoring chances at will. In the end, Notre Dame held on to win, but only thanks to a Herculean effort in the crease from Morris.

“We really had a great game, but we didn’t have Norris, we didn’t have Hughes and we didn’t have Lockwood,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson after Tuesday’s practice. “And I thought we coulda shoulda won the game. I think we outchanced them in scoring opportunities, we just didn’t finish at key times.”

Added sophomore goaltender Hayden Lavigne: “That was kind of where we realized — I don’t even think it was the whole weekend, it was the first game where we could compete, and we probably deserved to win it.”

Not only did the Wolverines take this newfound confidence with them to South Bend for the series’ second game that Sunday, but Norris and Hughes — only a day removed from World Juniors — rejoined the fold.

The freshmen fit into the lineup seamlessly, teaming up for Michigan’s lone goal in the third period. A second straight 2-1 loss wasn’t the result the Wolverines hoped for, but at the risk of using the admittedly fuzzy term “moral victory,” that’s exactly what it was.

“(Hughes and Norris) played extremely well,” Pearson said. “Another one-goal game, a tough loss. But I think then, you could see, we’re not far off. You don’t walk out of the rink feeling like there’s no chance.”

Out of nowhere, seeds of hope showed signs of sprouting. Norris and Hughes were growing up on the fly. Lavigne brought steadiness between the pipes. And for the first time all season, Michigan seemed to truly embrace an underdog mentality.

“Everybody picked us to lose that weekend, and we kind of just said in the locker room, ‘Screw that,’ ” Slaker said. “Like it’s our time to start turning around.”

It was nothing-to-lose confidence mixed with a healthy dose of urgency — even in two losses, the Wolverines felt they had put forth their best performance of the season.

“That was our first weekend where we played two really solid games,” Slaker said. “Even though we lost, we were really happy with our game, and we knew we were playing a good team.”

But Michigan still had to win at some point — and it would have to do so in a place where it rarely does so.

***

The similarities were eerie.

Last season, Michigan traveled to Minnesota the second week of January. It may not have been the Wolverines’ very last chance to reverse their season’s trajectory. But it was a golden opportunity to gain momentum, at the very least — they had won only one of their last six games at Mariucci Arena.

Instead, two losses to the ninth-ranked Golden Gophers — neither of them particularly close — were just two more forgettable episodes of a forgettable season.

One year later, on the second week of January, Michigan received a chance for redemption; an opportunity to do what the Wolverines of a year before could not: turn around their season in Minnesota.

However, that’s not exactly what Michigan was thinking as it prepared that week, practicing on the Olympic-sized ice rink of the Ann Arbor Ice Cube about 15 minutes from Yost Ice Arena in preparation for Mariucci. The process of rebuilding a program isn’t one that’s accomplished in one weekend, nor is it done by looking too far ahead — the Wolverines just wanted to take it one game at a time.

It’s one of the most exhausted cliches in sports — “one game at a time.” But Michigan, heading into what it knew would be, in one way or the other, a tipping point in its season, truly seemed to practice what it preached.

“Get the first game and then worry about the second,” Slaker said. “That’s kind of been always our motive throughout the year. If we have a two-game weekend, we focus on the first one and we don’t even worry about the second.”

The Wolverines knew that the first one would be a battle. Mariucci Arena has broken plenty of superior teams before. The wider Olympic ice propels the pace of the game into hyperspeed, and the Golden Gophers’ unprepared, inexperienced opponents inevitably run out of breath trying to keep up. Minnesota is tailor-made for its home arena, and for Michigan to have a chance, it would have to eliminate almost every mistake from its game.

At the Cube, the Wolverines drilled themselves on puck protection, eliminating turnovers in dangerous areas that had plagued them for the entire season. They stressed immaculate defensive zone positioning, countering the Golden Gophers’ ultra-talented skaters in space.

“Everything was just faster and harder,” Calderone said. “Everyone was just competing more, and you could just see a completely different team.”

Meanwhile, a potent mix of nervous energy, quiet self-assurance and fuel from being overlooked powered them through that week’s practices. On their bus ride to Mariucci before the series’ first game, that mix was easily apparent — Pearson described it as one of the quietest pregame buses of the year.

“We knew what we were up against, and it was just an extra level of people being focused and dialed in,” Slaker said. “Little bit of nerves and a little bit of excitement. People just had their headphones in, doing their pre-game rituals, just dialing it in.”

Added Pearson: “This isn’t really a quiet team. So when they’re quiet like that, you know something’s going on.”

Sure enough, something was. Senior forward Dexter Dancs gave Michigan the lead with a snipe just 15 seconds into the game.

Despite the blazing start, the first contest eventually became the battle the Wolverines anticipated. Minnesota controlled the game’s tempo, and Michigan spent much of the game trying desperately to hang on.

But the Wolverines did — even through surviving a 27-19 shot deficit, surviving a six-on-four situation in the game’s final moments — and pulled off a crucially-needed, 5-3 victory.

“I don’t think anyone really expected to sweep,” Lavigne said. “But we went in there and we won the first game … and that kind of led us on to believe — second game, you know what, this is our game as well.”

The series opener opened the floodgates — if Friday was Michigan at its most intense and sharply focused, Saturday saw a looser, freer group take the ice.

The end result was the same, but it never felt as close as it did a night before. Norris and junior forward Brendan Warren both scored in the first three minutes, Lavigne made 17 of 18 saves and the Wolverines allowed just two shots in the third period, claiming their first sweep in Minneapolis since 1977 with a 3-1 win.

“We played hard at Minnesota,” Pearson said. “It’s a tough place to play — an Olympic sheet, there’s some adjustment there, but we played a very solid defensive game. Just coming off the Notre Dame series and winning the game now we had some mojo, we were starting to get some swagger to the game and some confidence.”

You know what happened next. Riding that swagger and confidence, Michigan returned home to face Penn State, and behind two lights-out displays from Lavigne, the Wolverines held the nation’s top-ranked scoring offense scoreless in even-strength play on their way to a second straight sweep. Since Jan. 7, Michigan has lost just four games.

“We just started to see that we could win, we just had to get better in a little bit,” Pearson said. “Ask a little bit more from everybody else, and I think that’s what happened at Minnesota and then you got some confidence going home. Play Penn State, and all of a sudden you’re rolling. It’s like that snowball rolling down the hill, it just starts growing and growing, and there’s no stopping it.”

Two months after the Wolverines swept the Golden Gophers, a full-blown avalanche tore through Massachusetts, laying waste to Northeastern and Boston University.

At the heart of that avalanche is the original snowball that began rolling down the hill during those two weeks in January.

The ingredients are simple, if a bit predictable. Stable goaltending, disciplined defense, balanced offense, talented youngsters starting to blossom, grit and confidence — lots of confidence.

And they’ve taken a once-rebuilding, once-left-for-dead team all the way to St. Paul.