Notebook: Pearson pleased with Dancs, LaFontaine finds playing time
Last weekend in the Michigan hockey team’s critical series with No. 17 Wisconsin, there was no shortage of punches thrown from either team. With rivalry games against in-state foe Michigan State on the horizon for the Wolverines, physicality and aggression are likely to play a role once again.
And though not all penalties are avoidable, Michigan coach Mel Pearson thinks his team has been taking too many of what he describes as “selfish penalties.” Given this, discipline has been a major talking point of practice this week.
“We just talk about it,” Pearson said. “And just play whistle to whistle. … And I think you’re willing to take a few penalties, but it’s the ones that aren’t team penalties — and I call those the selfish penalties — where you retaliate for a hit you didn’t like. And we talk about the emotional control to your game because the game is hype, you’re on the edge and you can get your aggression out by playing clean whistle to whistle.
“It’s hard though. It’s a rival and there’s a lot of stuff going on on the ice. But you have to stay in the game and play for the team.”
Pearson highlighted senior forward Dexter Dancs’ second period roughing penalty Friday night as an example. After taking a hit along the boards, Dancs proceeded to retaliate instead of restraining himself. Due to a coaching decision, Dancs was benched in Saturday’s game for the first time this season.
But this week, Dancs has already made great strides with regards to his work ethic and discipline in practice. It hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“I like Dexter,” Pearson said. “I like Dexter Dancs this week. He’s been fabulous. I like the energy that he’s brought to practice and we haven’t seen that for a while. And whether it’s not playing a game, or whatever it is, he’s a senior and he doesn’t have many kicks at the can so to speak. … And every once in a while you need a little bit of a wake-up call or reality check. And I think that maybe was it with Dexter.”
And demonstrating discipline is not just necessary to be seen from senior leadership, but up and down the roster as well. The past weekend, penalties were drawn by Michigan players of every class.
But the significance of exhibiting this self control is not lost on the newest members of the team.
“I think there’s a difference between playing aggressive, competing hard and being undisciplined,” said freshman forward Jack Becker. “So I think it’s just playing between the whistles and not getting into the extracurriculars after the whistles, like all of the chirping and talking.”
Eyes on the PairWise
With three weekends left until the postseason, the PairWise Rankings are getting harder and harder to ignore.
A statistical ranking tool, the PairWise indicates the teams that will be in the running for selection to the NCAA Tournament, which begins in late March.
At the end of last season, the Wolverines finished 37th in the PairWise, a far cry from a top-16 tournament bid. But the 2017-18 season is telling a very different story. Following its series split with Wisconsin, Michigan has been inching up in the ranking system, currently sitting at 15th. Just moving up a few more spots when the season ends would almost guarantee a tournament spot.
And though Pearson believes that his team should maintain focus on the games that lie ahead of it, the rankings have certainly been on the minds of him and the rest of the coaching staff.
“Do you want me to lie?” Pearson joked after practice on Tuesday. “We don’t talk about it with our team much but as coaches, we keep an eye on it. … It could affect decisions a little bit as far as who you play. Do you play a shorter bench, do you pull your goalie earlier in games now maybe if you’re behind? So I think you have to have a pulse on what’s going on and where you’re at.”
This awareness of the rankings includes the coaches watching the games of other teams that are close to Michigan’s positioning in the PairWise. But in regards to conversations with the team, all that is discussed is working to make the Wolverines better every day and how to find success in their next outing.
“You want them to feel that encouragement,” Pearson said. “If (the current ranking) makes them play harder, if that makes them play better, you can use that. But we tend to stay on the safe side and worry about the things we can control, and that will take care of itself.”
And the players seem to be maintaining this positive outlook and not overemphasizing the rankings, while still keeping them in mind.
“I mean, it’s definitely hard to not pay attention to them, because it kind of tells you if your season is going to go longer,” said freshman forward Mike Pastujov. “But really, right now we’re just trying to finish out the end of our season and get as many wins as possible.”
LaFontaine sees the ice
Since the calendar year flipped, sophomore Hayden Lavigne had been Michigan’s go-to in the net. Given this, his classmate Jack LaFontaine hadn’t seen any playing time since the Great Lakes Invitational.
That was until Saturday night, when the Wolverines’ four-goal deficit in the second period sent LaFontaine in to replace Lavigne. In his late-game outing, LaFontaine made 18 saves, allowing no goals, making the loss sting a little less.
Though it didn’t take place at an ideal time, Pearson noted that LaFontaine’s ability to step up and play when Michigan needed him was commendable.
“It’s unfortunate that he had to go in in that circumstance because obviously Hayden had a tough night, but in a way it was good because Jack got an opportunity to get in there and get some minutes in,” Pearson said. “ … And it was almost two periods of shutout hockey for him, which was good.”
Given this, Pearson made clear that Lavigne is still the clear starter, as he earned himself the spot. The netminder had a stellar showing Friday night, saving 37 pucks, bailing out Michigan in its 5-3 win. But with LaFontaine proving competitive as well, the Wolverines do not have to worry on nights that Lavigne doesn’t play his best game.
“If Hayden plays like he did Friday night, it will be tough for Jack to get in,” Pearson said. “Now if Hayden plays like he did Saturday, the door is open. It’s Hayden’s job, he’s the starter. And if he continues to play well he will continue to get the starts.”