As Michigan was preparing to host Minnesota in a marquee Big Ten match early this week, Wolverines coach Mel Pearson had a thought or two about his young, talented, and inconsistent team.
“We’ll be fine,” said Pearson. “We’ll be more than fine. Just give us another month together as a team, and we’ll be alright.”
No one doubts that Michigan will be fine, given the names that grace the Wolverines’ roster and the program’s recent penchant for strong second halves. It’s that another-month-together part that’s tricky.
In their series against Minnesota Dec. 8-9, their last games before the holiday break, the Wolverines are without five key players – two sophomores, three freshmen – who have joined Team USA in Plymouth, Mich., in advance of the IIHF World Junior Championship.
Temporarily gone are Johnny Beecher, Matt Beniers, Thomas Bordeleau, Brendan Brisson and Cam York and the 11 goals they’ve scored among them in the first eight games of the season.
Their absence comes immediately after Michigan suffered a rough 9-5 road loss to Penn State Dec. 3 and at the tail end of a two-week period in which the Wolverines went 1-3-0.
While losing players to the World Juniors isn’t new to Michigan and playing through a stretch when rookie talent is adjusting to college hockey is something the Wolverines have seen before, doing both at once during a schedule condensed by a global pandemic adds an extra dimension of necessary acclimation to the end of Michigan’s first-half play. Beecher, Beniers, and Bordeleau have been centering lines, so the Wolverines will experiment against Minnesota.
“You’ll see Kent Johnson slide into the middle,” said Pearson. “You’ll see Jimmy Lambert in the middle. He’s played some center before.”
Johnson and Lambert each have a goal this season, and Johnson leads the nation in assists with eight, averaging one per game. That duo flanked Beniers against Penn State.
Pearson said that another freshman, Philippe Lapointe, may see time at center, too.
“He’s come into the lineup and he’s played one game,” Pearson said. “We’ve thrown him in the middle. It’s just one of those things.”
Sophomore defenseman Jay Keranen will “probably play forward” said Pearson.
“I’m going to have to throw it in the blender and mash it up, too, so you’re going to see a little bit of everything,” Pearson said.
One bright spot for the Wolverines in their road split with the Nittany Lions was a power play that went 2 for 6 after Pearson tinkered a little the makeup of two units.
“So much for that,” said Pearson, “because you’re going to see two different ones this weekend.”
Pearson said that he has faith in how his team, especially his veterans, will respond to the shortened bench. Junior defenseman Nick Blankenburg is someone that the Wolverines will look to for leadership on both sides of the puck, especially on that power play.
“He brings everything,” said Pearson. “He can shoot it. He sees the ice. With his skating ability he can get around people and create scoring chances not only for himself but for different people because people have to respect him because he can beat somebody and draw another guy to him. He’s got a little bit of everything there.”
Blankenburg has three goals this season, two on the power play, after netting six total goals in 69 games through his first two seasons.
“He was one of the guys we were thinking of putting up in forward this week,” said Pearson. “Two years ago, I put him up front and he was awesome. He was one of our best forwards in the game, scored. Then we got some injuries on defense and had to put him back. He’s the kind of guy that can play anywhere for us. Watch where he lines up this week. Who knows where we’ll have him?”
Pearson did clarify one thing about Blankenburg, saying, “He’s not a very good goalie, though.”
Fortunately for the Wolverines, Blankenburg won’t be needed in net. In spite of having given up six of the nine goals that Michigan surrendered to Penn State in that loss last week, Strauss Mann is ready to go, said Pearson.
“He’s fine,” Pearson said of Mann. “He’s a grounded guy. He has a routine.”
Pearson’s confidence in his team doesn’t diminish the difficulty that the Wolverines – that all B1G teams – are facing in this shortened first half.
“I think it’s been really different these last couple of weeks,” said Pearson. “The excitement of the year getting going has sort of faded and now we’re in the grind. You have to embrace and love the grind, and it’s been a challenge for us. How much do we practice? What days do we practice? You have some guys who play 24 minutes in a game and some guys aren’t playing. Some guys are playing 10 minutes.”
Pearson said that the first time he saw the season take a toll on his team was in that loss to Penn State.
“Mentally, I felt we were off, tired, making bad reads and when you get tired you start to mentally make mistakes,” said Pearson. “I thought we had more in that game than we probably had in the previous five games, so we gave them the day off.”
That was Monday, the day before the start of the Minnesota-Michigan series.
“We told them, ‘Stay away. Get to bed early and be ready to go,'” said Pearson.
“Normally when you have new players coming into the fold like we do who haven’t played, you get a good four days, five days to practice. It’s not what you normally have, but it is what it is and we have to embrace that and make the most of this opportunity.”
Another shortened bench
The Golden Gophers will be three players short themselves for the series against Michigan. Three defenseman – sophomores Ryan Johnson and Jackson LaCombe plus freshman Brock Faber – are also training with Team USA.
Minnesota coach Bob Motzko said that their absence “will throw a little wrinkle into” how the Gophers have been playing. Allowing 1.17 goals per game, Minnesota has the third-best defense in the nation.
“We’ve got other guys that will step up,” said Motzko.
There is little doubt about that. Entering the series against Michigan, Minnesota was undefeated through its first six games of the season.
In addition to the series between the Gophers and Wolverines, Wisconsin was set to meet Michigan State Dec. 8-9, but that series was postponed because of players testing positive in the Wisconsin program.
Sunday, Dec. 20, marks the end of the first half of the season for the Big Ten. There are two conference series scheduled and two nonconference tilts with Arizona State.
Notre Dame hosts Ohio State Dec. 12-13 before ending the first half with a home series against Michigan State Dec. 19-20.
Arizona State plays Penn State Dec. 11 and Dec. 13 before heading to Columbus to meet the Buckeyes Dec. 17-18.