By @MichaelCaples –
On the weekend of Feb. 16-18, the Wolverines swept No. 1-ranked Notre Dame in a home-and-home series that was an exclamation mark on Michigan’s second half of the 2017-18 season.
A “we’re back” moment of sorts for the Michigan hockey program under new coach Mel Pearson.
When asked about the turning point of the season, however, Pearson pointed to the other Notre Dame series – a pair of losses for his Wolverines.
“It realty happened in early January with the series we had ironically with Notre Dame,” Pearson said of when he thought his team started to ‘click.’ “They were ranked No. 1 at the time, they had maybe a 10, 12-game winning streak going on, we were .500… We lost both those games, but we played extremely well in both games and I think at that point, I could see the promise in our team that we had. I think it started with (goaltender) Hayden Lavigne, started playing extremely well in goal and from that weekend on, I think we’ve only lost four games since that weekend, so the guys really came together and bought in. I think they were much more comfortable with myself, a new coach and maybe a little different approach to how the message is sent. I think that was the turning point for us, really, is like I said ironically that Notre Dame series in early January.”
From that point on, Michigan started a nine-week surge through the conclusion of the Big Ten season. It began with a weekend road sweep of then-No. 9 Minnesota on Jan. 12-13. It followed with a home sweep of then-No. 12 Penn State. Then it finished with a two-game sweep of Wisconsin in the best-of-three Big Ten quarterfinals.
After those two losses to Notre Dame, the Wolverines have been 14-4-1. You could make that 15-4 if you count the shootout win over Michigan State on Feb. 9; that’s the ‘1’ in the tie column in the record spelled out in the previous sentence.
The Wolverines are on fire, playing their best hockey at the perfect time.
Which means another date with the Fighting Irish – this time in St. Paul, Minn., as the second national semifinal during next weekend’s 2018 Frozen Four.
“Extremely excited to be here taking Michigan back to the Frozen Four,” Pearson said. “Obviously we’ve participated in a number of these before and I have as an assistant at Michigan 11 times. Just really proud and excited. I think out of the four teams, we were probably the least likely to get there after being picked to finish sixth in the Big Ten. I’m really fortunate to be surrounded by a great group of players who didn’t believe in all the preseason polls and have worked extremely hard to get to this point. Obviously, we’re the underdog in the tournament, and we’re just happy to be there. It’s bonus hockey for us now. It’s been a great week at Michigan, not only with the men’s basketball team getting to the Final Four, but obviously with our hockey team getting to the Frozen Four, so anxious to get to St. Paul. St. Paul does a great job, really excited to be coming to the Xcel Energy Center. They’re great hosts and just really excited to play a great Notre Dame team, who we have a lot of respect for.”
It’s been a remarkable run for the Wolverines, who, as Pearson noted, were picked to finish No. 6 out of seven Big Ten teams in the preseason polls. The turnaround has been headlined by the ‘DMC’ line of Dexter Dancs, Cooper Marody and captain Tony Calderone; the trio has combined for 51 goals and 117 total points. Lavgine has gotten his fair share of accolades and praise, as well. Yet it’s been a somewhat unheralded blue-line unit that has the Wolverines as one of only four college hockey teams left standing in the season’s final weekend.
“We were looking back on our ’98 championship team and the defensemen we had on that team. It’d be interesting if you could name more than one guy; it was sort of a no-name defense,” Pearson said. “I’m not gonna say we have a no-name defense this year because we don’t. We have some high-end players and it all starts with Joseph Cecconi and Quinn Hughes. They log a lot of minutes, they’ll play between 25-30 minutes on Thursday I’m sure. What makes them so good is they’re so good defensively and, at the same time, they’re very good offensively. They possess the puck and they can really control it. But we have some other guys that have played extremely well. A Minnesota Wild draft choice Nick Boka scored a huge goal for us and has played extremely well defensively, great skater; Luke Martin, second-round draft pick from the Carolina Hurricanes, big, strong, physical, he’s played really, really well lately; Griffin Luce is a big body and then one of our captains, Sam Piazza, is the only senior back there and gives us some leadership. We’ve got a very solid core, a little bit different than that ’98 team, but at the same time, other than Hughes maybe and Cecconi, they don’t get a lot of press.”
And for Pearson, it’s been a wild ride moving back to Ann Arbor from Houghton, where he led Michigan Tech to two NCAA Tournament appearances before returning to the offices he shared with Red Berenson for more than two decades.
“You’re dealing with a different market in the recruiting area, there’s no doubt about it. Having said that, you have to know what you have. You have to understand what product you have and what your market is to sell that to. Obviously, I think we did a pretty good job at Michigan Tech. they gave Notre Dame a pretty good run for their money this year, too. But it is different, there’s no doubt about it. You just have to adapt to that change and understand what you’re selling and who you’re selling that to. It’s been fun to be back. I was at Michigan for 23 years so I knew what I was getting in to, I knew the differences between the schools and I do have a love obviously for Michigan Tech and obviously for Michigan.”