This Week in Big Ten Hockey: Playing with confidence since 2020 started, Michigan putting itself into conference contention

(Tim Brule)
Michigan senior Jake Slaker has registered a team-best 11 goals and 21 points this season for the Wolverines (photo: Michigan Athletics).

Owners of a 6-1-1 record since the calendar flipped to the new decade, Michigan seems to be getting hot at the right time.

The Wolverines, who swept Wisconsin at home last weekend and play in-state rival Michigan State this weekend, are full of confidence, according to coach Mel Pearson.

“You can’t go to the 7-Eleven and buy confidence,” Pearson said. “You can’t but a lottery ticket, scratch it off and you won confidence. You have to earn it.”

Michigan earned its confidence during the first two conference series of 2020. The Wolverines swept Notre Dame on the road and followed that performance up by taking five of six conference points at Penn State.

“It gives you a lot of confidence,” Pearson said. “At that point, they were both ranked top 15 in the country. To go in there and beat Penn State, which has always been a tough place to play, and the weekend before to beat Notre Dame in two tight games.”

Pearson said it was nice to grind out a result in the games against the Irish because those were the type of contests Michigan was letting slip away in the first half of the season. He was also impressed with the performances at Penn State because a travel issue made it a non-typical weekend.

“We rolled into Penn State and, in sort of a weird coincidence, we couldn’t land in Penn State on Thursday,” he said. “We didn’t even practice Thursday. We had to fly into Harrisburg and bus in on Thursday night. Just being a creature of habit, you get out of your routine and you start worrying, but we went in there and beat them 6-0 on Friday night and played extremely well.”

Michigan’s defense had been steady throughout the season but the offense coming around in the second half has led to the run the team is currently on.

“We had played well defensively in the first half, that wasn’t an issue, it was finding some offense and getting healthy and having that break and getting our mind set,” Pearson said.

Goaltender Strauss Mann has been solid, too, with a 13-11-3 record and 2.07 GAA. Pearson said his goalie deserves a lot of credit for navigating a tough first half of the season.

“In a weird kind of way, it made him tougher,” he said of the first half. “I think it made him even more focused, because he understood at that time that for us to win, he almost had to pitch a shutout and play a perfect game. It put a lot of pressure on him, but he’s the kind of kid that can handle that.”

He also said he thinks Mann has transitioned into a leadership position throughout the year.

“He’s in the business school here, the Ross Business School, which is, if not the best in the country, one of the top,” Pearson said. “He’s got a demanding workload, he’s in there competing against the top students in the world, and he’s a straight-A student.

“He cherishes that, he thrives on the adversity and the challenge. That first half just made him so much tougher, and then he became a leader. At that point we knew he was our best player every night and then he started to lead, not only by example, but also talking more and saying things. When your best player steps forward and he’s putting it on the line every night, guys listen.”

Pearson also credited the leadership of senior forward Jake Slaker, who had two goals and three assists last weekend against Wisconsin.

“We have a fairly quiet team; they don’t say a lot,” he said. “They work hard, but we don’t have a lot of rah rah, which is fine. Sometimes you need a guy in the room that can just calm the nerves or have something to say. (Slaker’s) a vocal leader and he’s had a lot of success here at Michigan and he’s a good hockey player. He’s played extremely well since the break and even before that he played well, he just wasn’t scoring, but now they’re going in.”

The rivalry between Michigan and Michigan State doesn’t need to be hyped up, in any sport. However, with both team playing well, this weekend could be special.

“Michigan State’s had a good year, they’re relevant this year, and they’re right there in the race for the Big Ten championship,” Pearson said. “As are we, we’ve put ourselves in contention by having a great second half. That just adds so much more intrigue to the games themselves.”

As is well-documented, the Big Ten standings are as congested as ever.

The Wolverines are currently in sixth but are only six points off the lead. Pearson, citing last season where an extra victory would have locked the team into second place in the Big Ten, but they ended up as the sixth seed in the conference tournament, stressed the importance of the remaining six games in the regular season.

“The old cliché that you just take it one game at a time is so true, because you can’t let these opportunities slip by,” he said. “Every point is so critical in the Big Ten and everybody’s playing everybody. Someone’s going to win and someone’s going to lose. If you can win, if you can scratch out and get a sweep on a weekend, that’s huge.”

Friday’s game between the Spartans and Wolverines will be at Michigan State. The two teams will close their season series on Monday at Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena.

“Usually when we play at Yost, it’s sold out and you can’t get a ticket and you go to Munn and it’s sold out and you can’t get a ticket,” Pearson said about the annual game in Detroit. “This is just a way to be able to have more people attend and enjoy the rivalry. All our guys love going down there, whether it was Joe Louis or Little Caesars, and playing in an NHL venue.

“Obviously, there’s a lot at stake, when you’re from the state of Michigan it’s either Michigan or Michigan State, there’s no in-between. It’s a huge rivalry, whether it’s in football or basketball and, obviously, hockey. It’s a great place to go and showcase college hockey on the big stage.”

Gophers look to get back on track after winning streak snapped

A rough third period in Minneapolis on Saturday for Minnesota led to Michigan State snapping the Gophers six-game winning streak.

Minnesota gets a chance to right the ship this weekend at Notre Dame.

“We were awful good for lots of parts of the weekend and for lots of the last month,” Minnesota coach Bob Motzko said of the winning streak. “So roll on.”

Notre Dame grabbed four of the six Big Ten points up for grabs when these two teams met in early November.

Motzko said it was tough to use the video from that series to prepare for this weekend because both teams have changed over time.

He noted the number of goals the Irish have been scoring lately and said he expected a strong defensive effort from the typically disciplined Notre Dame team on home ice.

Minnesota is currently in a tie with Michigan State and Ohio State for second in the Big Ten with 31 points. The Gophers, Spartans, Irish and Michigan have played two less conference games than first-place Penn State, Ohio State and Wisconsin. Ohio State is off this weekend.