Ann Arbor — Michigan hockey coach Mel Pearson will be making his 40th appearance in the Great Lakes Invitational.
Pearson won a title as a player for Michigan Tech at Olympia Stadium in 1979, when he scored a goal in the third overtime against Michigan. He claimed multiple titles as an assistant coach at Michigan at Joe Louis Arena, then won another championship as head coach at Michigan Tech in 2012 at JLA.
Pearson even guided Michigan Tech to the GLI title game at Comerica Park when the tournament went outdoors in 2013, losing in overtime to Western Michigan. Michigan Tech again lost to Western in the championship game last season.
Pearson played a part in helping Michigan Tech win five straight GLI titles (1976-80), then led the Huskies to their first championship since that 1980 title in 2012 when Pheonix Copley stopped all 70 shots he faced in consecutive 4-0 victories over Michigan and Western.
Now Pearson is in his first season as head coach at Michigan and can’t wait to lead the Wolverines (7-7-2) into the GLI semifinal Monday against Bowling Green (8-5-6) at new Little Caesars Arena. Michigan State (8-9-1) plays Michigan Tech (9-7-5) in the other semifinal.
The championship and consolation games are Tuesday.
“To me it’s very special, a lot of great memories,” Pearson said. “I played in the Olympia, played at Joe Louis Arena and coached there, and now I’m coaching at Little Caesars. It’s a tremendous tournament. Obviously, the Ilitches, the Olympia, and Little Caesars, they’ve done a great job of running the tournament and keeping it significant in college hockey.
“I think it’s the best tournament in college hockey.”
Another person very familiar with the GLI is Michigan assistant coach Billy Muckalt, who won a pair of titles as a player (1995-96), then came back for his senior season in 1998 to help the Wolverines win their second national championship in three years.
And to think if Dylan Larkin, Kyle Connor and Zach Werenski stayed all four years at UM, the Wolverines would be among the favorites to win the national championship this season. But all three are having solid seasons in the NHL, Larkin for the Red Wings, Connor for the Jets and Werenski for the Blue Jackets.
Like Pearson, Danton Cole is in the first year as head coach at Michigan State, and Joe Shawhan is in his first season as head coach at Tech after being an assistant under Pearson the last three years, helping the Huskies go 75-34-14 and earning two NCAA tournament appearances.
Pearson’s Michigan team has been inconsistent this season.
“Real good some nights and so-so other nights, just up and down, and I think that’s been the most frustrating part,” Pearson said. “I guess you could say that weekend against Michigan State (Dec. 7-8) summed up our season so far, beat them 4-0 here, then lost to them 5-0 over there.”
Michigan ranks 15th nationally in scoring (3.31 goals), but ranks in the bottom third nationally in special teams (11-of-69, 15.9 percent on power play; 53-of-67, 79.1 percent on penalty kill).
Pearson has been pleased with the play of Michigan’s top line of seniors Tony Calderone (Trenton) and Dexter Dancs and junior Cooper Marody (Brighton).
“I think Tony Calderone’s really surprised me,” Pearson said of a player who has 13 goals in 16 games, including a hat track in the 4-0 win over the Spartans, after leading the Wolverines with 15 goals a year ago. “That line — Dancs, Calderone and Marody — has been really, really good.
“It’s great to have a line like that, but that’s part of our problem, when they don’t produce we’ve got to get more from guys like Will Lockwood, Jake Slaker and Josh Norris. I like where we’re positioned for the second half. There’s a lot of room for growth, which is a positive. We’re nowhere near reached our maximum or our ceiling, which is a positive thing.”
Pearson said he feels Michigan’s special teams will improve during the second half of the season. But Josh Norris, Quinn Hughes and Will Lockwood are currently playing with the U.S. team in the World Junior tournament, which will leave the Wolverines shorthanded for the GLI.
Still, Calderone will be on the LCA ice. He has enjoyed playing on his line.
“We have great chemistry on our line,” Calderone said. “I think we’ve kind of figured out how to play together. Cooper’s skill will show through hard work and then Dexter has been the workhorse of our line with getting the puck and giving it to Coop, who finds me, and I’m the shooter.
And Calderone can’t wait to play at LCA.
“I’ve been to a couple of Red Wings games so I’ve seen the rink, but to actually play on it will be a completely different feeling,” he said. “I think that’s going to be special, and to be the first team to play there will be cool.”
Calderone said it’s been a smooth transition from Red Berenson, who retired after last season, to Pearson.
“Coach Mel brings a lot of positivity, been positive through every situation, which has been nice,” he said.
SPARTANS MAKING STRIDES
Cole, who won a national title as a player with the Spartans (1986) and a Stanley Cup (1995) with the Devils, has done a tremendous job with the Spartans. They already have surpassed their win total of a year ago, when they were 7-24-4 and were among the nation’s worst in special teams, converting on just 24-of-154 power-play chances (15.6 percent) while giving up 42 power-play goals (72.5 percent on penalty kill).
This season, the Spartans rank 21st nationally on the power play (15-of-70, 21.4 percent), but still need to tighten up on the penalty kill, giving up 12-of-59.
The Spartans scored three power-play goals in their win over Michigan on Dec. 8 and had a strong performance in goal by sophomore John Lethemon (Northville), who turned aside all 29 shots he faced while his teammates killed off all Michigan power plays.
But, like the Wolverines, the Spartans have also been inconsistent, splitting multiple series and playing at their best in sweeps of Ferris State and Lake Superior State.
The Spartans have a playmaker in Taro Hirose (15 assists, 21 points), who scored an overtime goal against Ferris State and had three assists in the win over Michigan. Mitch Lewandowski (Clarkston) leads them in goals with 10.
Shawhan has Michigan Tech playing well at both ends of the ice, ranking 24th in offense (3.05) and 19th defensively (2.67), while Bowling Green showcases one of the premier goalies in the nation in Ryan Bednard (4-2-4), who has a .926 save percentage and a 1.93 goals-against-average. The Falcons rank 12th nationally in defense (2.42).
GREAT LAKES INVITATIONAL
At Little Caesars Arena
Semifinal: Michigan State vs. Michigan Tech, 2:30 p.m. (streamed on WCHA.TV)
Semifinal: Michigan vs. Bowling Green, 6 p.m. (streamed on WCHA.TV)
Consolation: Monday’s losers, 2:30 p.m. (FSD)
Championship: Monday’s winners, 6 p.m. (FSD)