Ann Arbor – Sophomore goaltender Strauss Mann has helped Michigan climb out of the Big Ten basement and make the upcoming series with rival Michigan State a big one as the teams enter the stretch drive of the regular season.
MSU (14-13-1, 10-7-1) is in position to win a Big Ten title and Mann could dampen the Spartans’ dreams with another big series. The Wolverines (13-12-3, 8-8-2), who advanced to the Frozen Four in Mel Pearson’s first year as Michigan’s head coach in 2018, swept Wisconsin last weekend.
The series will begin Friday night at Munn Arena in East Lansing with the rematch at Little Caesars Arena Monday night.
“He’s a great kid, in our business school and a straight-A student, competing with the top people in business and then he comes down here and does it, so he’s a remarkable young man,” said Pearson of Mann.
“He’s been consistent, and you can see the difference between last year and this year. He’s so much calmer than what he was last year, and he’s had some success and has gotten some confidence. He’s been one of our leaders, been more vocal, and when you say something you have to back it up, and he’s been our MVP easily.”
Mann, who was 6-8-4 with a 2.91 goals-against average and a .895 save percentage his freshman year, has improved to 13-11-3 this season with a much-improved GAA (2.07) and save percentage (.932) to go along with four shutouts, two in Big Ten play.
In one three-game stretch Mann gave up just one goal, first getting a 3-0 shutout at Notre Dame Jan. 10, followed by a 3-1 win over the Irish the next night, then earning another shutout in a 6-0 win at then-No. 6 Penn State Jan. 17.
And Michigan’s offense has come on of late, scoring 13 goals last weekend in that 8-4, 5-3 sweep of Wisconsin at Yost Arena.
“We’re 6-1-1 and it was against good teams,” Pearson said of the last four series, against Notre Dame, Penn State, Ohio State and Wisconsin. “We’ve been in every game for the most part this year, and in the second half (of the season) we’ve found a way to score and that’s been the biggest difference.
“It’s hard to think we were 0-6-1 in the Big Ten and now we’re 8-8-2 and that’s a lot of credit to the players. We got healthy. We had a lot of injuries during the first half of the season. Now, we’re playing well on the road, got 11 out of 12 points in our last four road games so this group is comfortable on the road.”
The MSU-UM showdown will showcase the top two goalies in the Big Ten with Mann going up against Spartans senior John Lethemon, who has a 14-10-1 record with a 1.93 GAA and a .942 save percentage.
“We’re starting to feel good as a team and that’s important, getting some great results and we want to keep that rolling,” Mann said. “I feel all year we’ve been playing pretty well, especially defensively, and of late we’ve been scoring more. Once you start getting a good feeling in the locker room it carries on to the ice and you can start to build on that.
“If you can pick one time to be hot this is definitely it, so we’re trying to carry that on to this weekend. It’s always good to play State and it’s much more important now because it’s the end of the year and the standings are so tight, so every point is huge.”
Mann says he’s more relaxed in net this season and that has contributed to his improved play.
“I think mentally I’ve approached the game differently, tried to slow the game down instead of being so aggressive and so competitive all the time,” Mann said. “I’m trying to be feel the game, manage the game a little better.”
Michigan vs. Michigan State
►Friday: 6 p.m., Munn Arena, East Lansing (FSD)
►Monday: 7 p.m., Little Caesars Arena, Detroit (BTN)