This Week in Big Ten Hockey: In order to beat Ohio State, Michigan knows ‘your top players have to be your top players’

Michigan senior captain Will Lockwood is second in team scoring this season with nine goals and 23 points over 33 games (photo: Michigan Athletics).

After losing the Great Lakes Invitational title game, Michigan owned a 7-11-2 record as the calendar flipped over to a new decade.

Since then, the Wolverines have posted an 11-3-2 record, including last weekend’s sweep of Michigan State in the first round of the Big Ten tournament. Michigan faces Ohio State in the semifinal this week.

Sounds a little bit like 2018, no? A season where Michigan had a pedestrian first half but got hot during the second half and ended up in the Frozen Four.

“We’ve drawn upon that,” Michigan head coach Mel Pearson said. “Even though each year it’s a different team with new faces, we have a lot of guys who were on that run. They can draw on that experience. They know what it took.”

Pearson added that 2018 and this year also featured an emergence of a goaltender, Hayden Lavigne then and Straus Mann now, and that they even had a player suffer a similar season-ending injury. While he’d love to see history repeat itself and the Wolverines to end up at the Frozen Four in Detroit, he wouldn’t mind the results of the Big Ten semifinal being flipped.

Ohio State won in 2018, 3-2 in overtime on a goal by Matthew Weis.

Ohio State is 3-1 against the Wolverines this season, but three of the contests have been one-goal games. Even the last time out, where the Buckeyes won 4-1, was close late and Michigan took two five-minute majors in the contest.

Pearson thinks the games have been close because the teams see a lot of each other when they look in the mirror.

“You look at the goalies, check. You look at the defensemen and how they play, check. You look at some high-end forwards on each team, whether it’s (Tanner) Laczynski, (Quinn) Preston, (Carson) Meyer or (Jake) Slaker, (Will) Lockwood or (Johnny) Beecher, check,” he said. “There are so many similarities between both teams.

“I think it’s our biggest rival, people think it’s Michigan State, but for some reason, it’s become Michigan-Ohio State and it’s intense. It was the last game we played, and I expect this game to be the same.”

Last weekend the Wolverines disposed of their other rival, Michigan State, by winning two 3-0 games. A similar defensive effort will be needed this weekend to continue the playoff run.

“You could probably count on your hand the number of outnumbered rushes by both teams,” Pearson said of last weekend against the Spartans. “Everybody now is concentrating on playing above the puck, having a third man back and not beating yourself. You saw a little bit of it in the Minnesota-Notre Dame series and you saw a little bit of it in Wisconsin-Ohio State the second night. Part of it is playoff hockey, part of it is some of the styles the teams play and you’re not going to get much so you can’t give up much.”

Of course, there’s only one game against Ohio State this weekend and not a three-game series, so some things will have to change in Michigan’s approach. The Wolverines have a shot at making the NCAA tournament as an at-large team, but getting the automatic bid is, obviously, the safer option.

“This week’s different, we’re back in class and you have one game,” Pearson said. “You can play guys more because you don’t have to save them, there’s no second game or third game. You have to make sure you do everything you can and sometimes that’s shortening your bench and getting your best players out there more.”

Special teams and nabbing the first goal of the game will be important, too, according to Pearson.

“We went 3-9 and they went 0-8, that was critical part of the weekend because we did score our first goals each night on the power play,” Pearson said, referring to last weekend. “Against a team like Michigan State or Notre Dame or Ohio State, it’s always advantageous to get ahead because they’re so good defensively and it seems like they make it harder to get to their net if they get the lead.”

The Wolverines got goals from Slaker and Beecher in each game last weekend and Person said that they’ll need similar performances from their top players the rest of the way.

“This time of year, sometimes it’s not your star players, it’s somebody else that makes the difference, but your top players have to be your top players and fortunately for us, they have been,” he said.

Coronavirus comments

Pearson was also asked about the possibility about playing games in empty arenas going forward due to coronavirus precautions.

“We talk about it, [and] we’ve talked about it all the time,” he said. “We’ve been in some rinks this year where there’s no atmosphere and we understand that we have to create our own energy and our own atmosphere. We can’t let the fans or how many are there or what’s going on in the building dictate that.

“It’ll be different, I’m not sure what’s going to happen. It doesn’t matter if we’re playing outdoors somewhere in front of nobody and it’s just a pickup game or we’re playing in a sold-out building, we still have to find a way to win the game.”

Penn State finally gets back on the ice

Remember Penn State, the team that actually won the Big Ten regular-season title? Well, for the first time in three weeks the Nittany Lions will be back on the ice playing an actual game.

The Nittany Lions will host the same team they did 21 days prior on Saturday – Minnesota.

The idea that a bye week this late in the season could be a detriment to a team might have legs or it might be silly, but head coach Guy Gadowsky didn’t make it a big deal heading into this weekend.

“Hockey is very variable, so just like every other game, it’s who prepares best and we just happen to have a little more time to do that,” he told PSU student reporter Will Desautelle last week.

Just in its third season in the current format, it’s too early tell if having only a single game hampers the top seed in the Big Ten. Notre Dame had the bye the first year and wound up winning the tournament and Ohio State did last year and lost to Penn State.

Rest does equal recovery, though, so Penn State should be fresher than the Gophers, who played three games last weekend.

“I think there are a few individuals that are very happy we got the bye,” Gadowsky said. “There’s bumps and bruises at this time of the year and I think that, you know for specifically a few of the guys, there are a lot of benefits to it.”

On the other bench, Minnesota’s Bob Motzko isn’t preparing for a rusty Penn State squad.

“We’re going to prepare that Penn State’s going to be the best that Penn State can be, which is awful good,” Motzko said. “They’ve beaten us three times this year. There’s no way that we can possibly coach thinking they’re not going to be on top of their game. It’s not even in our brain.”

Gophers seek assurance of auto bid

Motzko said he isn’t really looking at the PairWise picture heading into this weekend, offering a simpler solution to getting the Gophers into the NCAA tournament.

“We have to win one game, twice,” he said. “That’s our concentration right now. We’re in the hunt, and we’re still living here on a Tuesday.”

Minnesota can also look back to the 2017-18 season, though not with the same fond eyes as Michigan, as a good reminder to try and snag the Big Ten’s automatic bid. Even with their opening round loss to Penn State, the Gophers look like they were in a good spot to grab a at-large bid until everything went against them. Minnesota Duluth ended up grabbing the spot and went on to win its second national championship.