SportsMonday Column: Pearson's plan already paying off
Mel Pearson has always had a plan.
It involved overhauling an entire offense — as he had at previous stops — with a group primarily made up of veterans who were used to a different style of hockey.
By his own admission, and understandably, that plan takes time. It’s one that he admits the Wolverines struggled with over the first half of their season.
But, if the last few weeks are any indication, that plan is finally coming to fruition.
And to anyone outside Yost Ice Arena with reasonable expectations for this team with largely the same personnel as last year, that progress happened a lot quicker than they could have expected.
With this weekend’s sweep over No. 12 Penn State, Michigan already surpassed its 2016-17 conference win total. A week prior, the Wolverines went to Minneapolis and left having recorded their first sweep of the conference season against then-No. 9 Minnesota. It was the first time in 41 years that they swept the Golden Gophers at Mariucci Arena.
If that wasn’t significant enough, when the horn sounded on Saturday night’s victory over the Nittany Lions, it marked the first time Michigan swept back-to-back weekends in three years.
The weekend was by no means perfect.
There were still defensive zone turnovers, though goaltender Hayden Lavigne largely rendered them irrelevant.
The only time he didn’t was late in the third period Saturday night, when Penn State pulled its goaltender for an extra attacker and turned a 3-0 blowout into a 3-2 nail-biter with 53.3 seconds remaining.
And then there was the second period, one in which the Nittany Lions outshot Michigan, 17-8. In that frame, Pearson admitted that the Wolverines “took a little bit of a step back” from the systems that have yielded their recent success.
“We’re getting there,” Pearson said.
That they are. The fact remains that Michigan went toe-to-toe with the top-ranked offense in college hockey this weekend. The Nittany Lions entered the series averaging four goals and 40 shots per game. Not to mention they seven goals in two games when the teams met in State College in October.
Some of that remained the same, some of it didn’t.
Penn State stuck to its identity, letting 79 shots loose on the weekend. But Michigan shut them out Friday night, and was just under two minutes away from doing so again Saturday.
The performance on the opposite end was equally representative of progress.
The Wolverines got only one goal from their top line, a power-play goal by Dexter Dancs in the second period Saturday night. Michigan’s two Hobey Baker candidates — Cooper Marody and Tony Calderone — didn’t record a single point on the weekend.
Instead, for the first time this season, Michigan got most of its contributions from somewhere else.
Freshman Dakota Raabe scored his first goal of the season Saturday night in what would end up being the game-winner. A night prior, freshman Jack Becker found twine twice, despite lighting the lamp only once entering the series.
Holistically, the Wolverines have come a long way since September.
But that’s all a part of Pearson’s plan, too. And as he describes it, he needed Michigan to buy in at the beginning.
“I think that’s the biggest thing,” he says.
In part, “buying in” comes with breaking habits. Pearson isn’t willing to call them bad habits, per se. But the habits may run counterintuitive to the larger system. Early on, when the going got tough, those habits resurfaced. They’re still not entirely gone either — Saturday night’s second period being Pearson’s evidence of such.
But with consecutive sweeps and two narrow losses to Notre Dame in the last three weeks, that system has been validated.
“It’s proven now,” Pearson said. “We can lean on them a little bit more now and say, ‘Hey, we play like this, here’s the results. If we don’t here’s the period we can have.’ It’s good. But we’ve got to make sure our guys — our scorers who maybe have a tough night — they’ve got to continue to play the way we’ve been playing. And they’ll be reminded of that this week.”
Added Lavigne: “I think there was definitely a little bit of frustration with the hot and cold streaks we were having earlier in the year. Now we’re kind of seeing the benefits of it (and) it’s more motivating to stay with it. And we know that what we’re up to now is working and in the long run can lead to good things.”
It sure looks like it.
So ask Mel Pearson if he expected this much progress this quickly, and he’ll admit that it takes time. He’ll say he needed the buy in. He’ll say he needed to break habits to get here, and that it’s easier for his team to understand it when the results come with it.
But those results are coming now.
Michigan split with Minnesota in November, then swept the Golden Gophers last weekend. Michigan split with Penn State in October, then swept them this weekend, too.
Of course, that doesn’t mean Pearson’s work is done.
“We saw six consecutive games where we’ve come out hard and played well, and played collectively as a team for a full 60,” Lavigne said Saturday. “I think that’s kind of showing us that we can play at any level with anybody here. The Big Ten’s extremely strong this year and we’ve seen that we can compete within our conference. So the next step is getting into that tournament and competing nationally.”
Maybe they won’t make the tournament. Maybe they won’t win the Big Ten, either.
But with every plan comes measured steps. Consider step one a success.
Santo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Kevin_M_Santo.