Detroit — Mel Pearson is starting to get 2018 vibes around his Michigan hockey team.
Two years ago, Pearson’s first season as Michigan’s head coach, the Wolverines used a Duel in the D victory over Michigan State to propel a late season charge that ended in the Frozen Four.
This year’s surge started with an earlier trip to Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena, but it continued Monday against rival Michigan State in a 4-1 victory.
“It’s similar,” Pearson said of how this season is coming together. “We’ll see how this plays out.
“This team has a chance. They have all the ingredients you need to have a real good run here.”
Captain Will Lockwood scored two goals and assisted another in the Duel in the D triumph, which was Michigan’s fourth straight in the five-year event and was the eighth win in 10 games in 2020, a run that also includes a tie.
Lockwood’s night included some sizzle, as he tipped a Griffin Luce shot between his legs to beat Michigan State goaltender John Lethemon 58 seconds into the third period, closing the scoring.
“I think a lot of the Michigan guys look forward to this game,” said Lockwood, a Bloomfield Hills native. “It’s special to play in an atmosphere like this, and it was great to get the win.”
Leading scorer Jake Slaker, a senior forward, added two assists and goaltender Strauss Mann made 30 saves for Michigan (14-13-3, 10-8-2-1), which evened the season series with MSU at two games apiece and is peaking at the right time after starting Big Ten play 0-6-1.
This was Michigan’s third game at LCA, but the Wolverines hope it's not their last.
Michigan topped Ferris State on Dec. 30 in the Great Lakes Invitational semifinal before falling the next day to Michigan Tech 4-2 in the finals.
Since then, the Wolverines have been a different team than the one that finished 2019 at 7-11-2.
Michigan is 8-1-1 in 2020 and, with a two-game weekend sweep of its rivals, has the look of a team ready to make noise in the Big Ten Tournament next month.
“We’re healthy for the most part,” Pearson said, noting Lockwood missed the first series against MSU in November, a Spartans’ sweep. “We weren’t scoring early. I won’t say we played better earlier in the year than we are now, but we played well. We just couldn’t score.
“Now we’re getting some goals and we continue to get great goaltending.”
A pair of remaining weekend sets against Notre Dame and Minnesota also offer more opportunities for upward movement in the PairWise ratings, used to determine NCAA Tournament at-large bids. The Wolverines entered Monday at No. 20, one slot ahead of Michigan State.
After that, who knows? If Pearson’s team can stay this hot, perhaps a second trip to the Frozen Four in three seasons could be on the horizon April 9-11 back at LCA.
Michigan jumped rivals Michigan State and Ohio State into third place in the seven-team Big Ten, trailing Minnesota and Penn State.
“If anyone’s looking at the Big Ten standings, it’s a mess,” Pearson said. “Every point you can get is critical and for us to get six points on a weekend like this is great. It’s huge.”
Defenseman Dennis Cesana scored for the Spartans (14-15-1, 10-9-1-0), who have not reached the NCAA Tournament since 2012. In coach Danton Cole’s first two seasons, MSU has finished in last place in the Big Ten, but now sit tied for fourth with Ohio State with a weekend series opening Friday against the Buckeyes at Munn Arena.
“They’re proud guys, I love the group,” Cole said. “We’ll be working hard on Friday night. It’s tough though. This time of year, getting swept isn’t ideal. But hey, we are where we are, and we’ll keep going.”
Lockwood opened the scoring a little more than 5 minutes into the game by gaining possession of a loose puck in the Michigan zone and finishing a 1-on-3 rush himself.
The senior missed the ’18 Frozen Four run with an injury, his misfortune mirrored this season by freshman teammate Eric Ciccolini, who is out after shoulder surgery.
“Being out was tough, but watching my team succeed was great,” Lockwood said. “To get back there would be something really special.”
Sixty-eight seconds later, Cesana tied the game by finishing a crossing pass from Adam Goodsir, as Nico Muller also earned an assist.
But Michigan solved Michigan State’s biggest strength to take control with its next two goals on the power play.
The Spartans had been one of the nation’s stingiest penalty killing teams, surrendering just one goal in its last 20 man disadvantages entering Monday.
That goal came Friday in a 5-1 loss to Michigan in East Lansing, but still the Spartans entered Monday with the country’s best penalty kill rate since Nov. 30 at .930.
Jacob Hayhurst scored the game-winner, aided by two pretty passes — Slaker’s cross-ice feed to Lockwood, who centered it toward the net — to put Michigan up 2-1 with 5:14 left in the first.
Then, less than 3 minutes into the second period, Romeo’s Nick Blankenburg buried a wrist shot from straight away to beat Lethemon.
Mann finished a brilliant weekend with 56 saves on 58 shots. The sophomore goaltender also got some help late in the second period as Nolan Moyle took a puck off the goal line after a Michigan State shot hit both goal posts behind Mann.
“We needed him,” Pearson said. “Quite frankly, we were not very good. Didn’t manage the puck very well, turned it over numerous times in our zone. We just were sloppy.
“We had guys taking tests this morning. (MSU) came down (Sunday) night, they were dialed in.
“We gutted it out. I give our guys a ton of credit because it was not easy, but we found a way to get through it.”
Johnny Beecher and Cam York added assists for Michigan.
Lethemon made 17 saves for the Spartans.
“Sometimes it’s a good lesson,” Cole said. “You can play well and lose, but that’s what you’ve got to play well every night.”
Michigan plays host to Notre Dame on Friday and Saturday in the final regular season games at Yost Arena this season. Pearson said forward Jimmy Lambert is cleared to return from injury and should return this weekend after missing the MSU series.
The Big Ten Tournament opens March 8 with a trio of best-of-three meetings beginning while the top seed advances to the March 16 semifinals.
The Big Ten finals, with an automatic NCAA bid at stake, are March 23 and will be hosted by the highest remaining seed.
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.