Ann Arbor — In the middle of his postgame media availability on Saturday night, Michigan head coach Mel Pearson was delivered the news that his team’s next matchup in the Big Ten tournament would be on the road at the No. 2 seed Ohio State Buckeyes.
“Good,” he said. “We’ll look forward to seeing those guys down south.”
Pearson and the Wolverines had just completed a flawless sweep of rival Michigan State at Yost Ice Arena in Ann Arbor in the best-of-three quarterfinal series, beating the Spartans 3-0 for the second consecutive night as goaltender Strauss Mann’s sixth shutout tied him for the single-season program record set by Al Montoya in 2003-04.
"Again, it's just wins in the playoffs," Mann said. "That's all that matters."
Johnny Beecher and Jake Slaker scored for the second time in as many nights and Will Lockwood scored the winner with a power-play goal in the first for the Wolverines (18-14-4), who advance to play Ohio State in a one-game semifinal next Saturday at Value City Arena.
It’s hard to imagine now that a 9-3-2 record to close the season only yielded UM a No. 3 seed in the tournament, but that paints the picture of just how far this team — which began its conference slate 0-6-1 — has come in the second half of its season, and why it remains stoic during the most exciting time of year.
“From where we were in December to where we are now, this team has shown tremendous growth,” Pearson said. “It’s a tremendous credit to the young men we have in that locker room.”
Defenseman Nick Blankenburg said that his team's journey crossed his mind as the clock expired on Saturday.
"All those times where you're struggling in the first half and might not see the light at the end of the tunnel," Blankenburg said, "to get through those dark days, and see the outcome and what happens, it's a nice thing to see, see the hard work paying off, just to see everyone buying in."
The Wolverines have now gone two hours, 26 minutes and 25 seconds — and counting — without giving up a goal, the last occurrence coming in the second period of its regular-season finale against Minnesota last weekend. A lot of that can be attributed to Mann, who in two games against the Spartans this weekend stopped all 45 shots faced.
“I just think it’s being tough to play against and picking guys up in front and just knowing who you’re out against, especially with that top line that they have,” said Blankenburg, who assisted on Lockwood’s winner.
“It starts with Strauss and then the rest translates with us having the trust in him and him having the trust in us.”
Much can also be attributed to an increased emphasis placed on the defensive end earlier in the season, which in turn solved its problems on the other side of the ice.
“Defense wins championships, they say, and if we don’t give up any goals, we’ve got a pretty good chance to win some hockey games,” Pearson said. “We knew it was a matter of time before the offense would come.”
And now, with just two games standing in between them and an automatic bid in the NCAA Tournament, Pearson is a firm believer that he's got the best team in the conference.
"This team is hungry. We've got a lot of guys who can contribute. We've got guys who've been to the Frozen Four," Pearson said. "They know what it takes to get there, and that leadership group. And we got a goalie."
The Spartans (15-19-2) got off on much better footing than they did a night prior, spending a majority of the opening 3:41 on the attack before Brody Stevens was sent off for interference, ending MSU’s momentum and making way for a flurry of Grade-A Wolverines opportunities.
Even after receiving a power play of its own at 8:03, the Spartans couldn’t regain the momentum they started with until late in the first. A handful of shots from the point tested Mann, but didn’t beat him.
MSU had just one shot over the course of two power-play chances in the first.
"I've been on the other side of that. It can really take the energy and the spark out of your team. It can be a real downer," Pearson said of Michigan State's power-play stumbles.
"That's where the penalty kill on the other side can give you a boost and a lift."
UM picked up steam early in the second period, creating a handful of chances and grinding out long possessions in the offensive zone before eventually drawing a penalty on MSU forward Patrick Khodorenko.
The Wolverines cashed in their ticket 35 seconds into the power play. With the UM attack converging on Lethemon, Slaker fed Blankenburg for a one-timer at the top of the circles that was deflected past Lethemon by Lockwood to make it 1-0 at 5:20 in the second.
When handed opportunities to claim momentum, the Spartans faltered. A tripping penalty on UM’s Griffin Luce at 9:29 put MSU on its first power play of the period, which then expired without any shots on goal.
For the second night in a row, the Wolverines popped in a demoralizing goal near the end of the second period. Beecher split a pair of MSU defenseman with a full head of steam, doubled back to the top of the circles, and ripped a wrist shot past a screened Lethemon to put Michigan up 2-0 at 18:28.
"That's kind of been a shot I've been trying to pull off the whole season," Beecher said. "I'm kind of anticipating guys going to the net, especially against State. They really kind of like to pack it in."
Frustration began to boil over for the Spartans after Beecher’s second goal of the series, as Logan Lambdin took an errant cross-checking penalty to close the period.
The Spartans killed off the penalty to Lambdin and picked up the pace. They again tested Mann on several occasions but lost another crucial two minutes of even-strength play when Jerad Rosburg charged Nick Granowicz at 11:33.
Slaker iced the game for UM with an empty-net goal.
Big Ten hockey tournament
►No. 6 Michigan State at No. 3 Michigan
Game 1: Michigan, 3-0
Game 2: Michigan, 3-0
►No. 7 Wisconsin at No. 2 Ohio State
Game 1: Ohio State, 9-1
Game 2: Ohio State, 2-1 (OT)
►No. 5 Notre Dame at No. 4 Minnesota
Game 1: Notre Dame, 1-0
Game 2: Minnesota, 4-1
Game 3: Sunday, 7
Saturday, March 14
Minnesota-Notre Dame winner at No. 1 Penn State, 7 p.m. (BTN)
Sunday, March 15
No. 3 Michigan at No. 2 Ohio State, 5:30 p.m. (BTN)
Saturday, March 21
Semifinal winners, time TBD (BTN)
Nolan Bianchi is freelance writer.