SportsMonday Column: Hanging on
It’s not too often that a victory prompts cautionary words.
But Friday night, Mel Pearson proved to be an exception to the rule. His Michigan hockey team came away with a 5-3 win against No. 18 Wisconsin (8-9-2-1 Big Ten, 14-13-3 overall), but after taking a three-goal lead into the third period, the 20th-ranked Wolverines (8-10-2, 13-13-2) let their foot off the pedal.
The Badgers lit the lamp twice in the final frame and pulled their goaltender early in an attempt to turn what looked like a blowout into a far more competitive contest. And yet, Dakota Raabe’s open-netter proved to be Michigan’s saving grace.
Wisconsin’s resurgence, though, left something to be desired from Pearson.
“Discipline was not good,” he said after the game. “You could see right at the start of the second period after we got the lead that they were gonna come out and play physical and try to get us off our game a little bit. And they did a good job, and we fell right into it.
“… We’ve gotta understand that we have to stick to our game plan, we have to play with that poise and that patience. We have to learn how to play with a lead and do the things that got us that lead, and I thought we got away from that.”
The Wolverines, however, never got the chance to play with a lead again on the weekend. The Badgers buried Michigan with a four-goal deficit in the second period Saturday night and never looked back.
The loss, perhaps, made Pearson’s comments from Friday night even more illuminating.
Pearson said Friday night’s victory gave Michigan a chance to have a “heck of a weekend.” It would have been a heck of a weekend indeed — one that could have marked the Wolverines’ third sweep over a ranked opponent in their last four series. Instead, they were forced to settle for a split.
It was Friday night, too, that Pearson was asked about Raabe’s progress, only to shift his answer toward a more holistic evaluation of this Michigan hockey team.
“Our team has tremendous room for growth, I talk about that all the time,” he said then. “And you can see it in little doses. Now we’ve gotta just continue to do that all the time, and continue to come out of our comfort zone.”
That same optimistic outlook for the Wolverines’ progress, however, was measured with a dose of reality.
“We’re running out of time,” Pearson said. “Our seniors are running out of games. We’ve gotta grab it and run with it. We grabbed it and started to run a little bit, and then decided we were gonna slow down.”
Such is the reality for Michigan.
On Jan. 12, the Wolverines began a four-game unbeaten streak — sweeping then-No. 9 Minnesota at Mariucci Arena before sweeping then-No. 12 Penn State at home, too.
Since then, as Pearson put it, Michigan has slowed down. The Wolverines went to Columbus only to be unceremoniously swept by the sixth-ranked Buckeyes.
This weekend, at least in part, was another hiccup.
Make no mistake; with six teams — including Michigan — ranked in the top-20 nationally, sweeps are hard to come by in this year’s iteration of the Big Ten. But at this point, they may be necessary.
The Wolverines currently sit 16th in the Pairwise rankings. Taken at face value, that would put Michigan in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2015-16 season.
But the Pairwise rankings are not an exact science, and with three Big Ten programs ranked higher, it’d be more accurate to say the Wolverines’ aspirations of joining the 16-team field are sitting on the bubble.
That bubble very well may pop, which leaves little room for error in the coming weeks. Michigan will close out its regular season slate with a series against Michigan State, No. 2 Notre Dame and Arizona State.
It’s a six-game stretch that is simultaneously dangerous and enticing. Losses to the Spartans or Sun Devils could jeopardize a season-long resume. A win, or two, against the Fighting Irish could make the postseason selection much easier.
But as the Wolverines found out both Friday and Saturday — and have found out plenty of times this season — if they stray from the system Pearson is so desperate to implement for good, they could very well end up on the wrong side of that hypothetical.
“We’ve got to understand that, and until we do we’re gonna hold on for our dear lives in games like this against good teams,” Pearson said Friday. “They’re all good teams, and you give them a little momentum, a little bit of spark, (and) it’s like that dry kindling. You pour some gas on it, all of sudden you decide you’re gonna put one match on it and boom, and now you’re just holding on.”
And as the season continues to wane, one thing is clear: In its next six contests, Michigan won’t just be holding on to games. The Wolverines will be holding on to an ending — and beginning — to Pearson’s inaugural season.