Ann Arbor — Michigan first-year head coach Mel Pearson has reason to be optimistic with the Wolverines, who played well in consecutive 2-1 losses to No. 1 Notre Dame Jan. 5-7 before sweeping Minnesota in Minneapolis last weekend, 5-3 and 3-1.
Now, the Wolverines (10-10-2) are ranked No. 20 and will play host to No. 12 Penn State (13-8-3) this weekend at Yost Arena in hopes of moving up in the Big Ten standings.
Pearson, who replaced legendary coach Red Berenson, wanted to see one of his goalies emerge as the solid No. 1. Hayden Lavigne had done just that, putting together a 2.00 goals-against-average in the last four games with a .926 save percentage.
Lavigne and the Wolverines will be tested by Penn State, which owns the No. 1 offense in the nation, averaging four goals a game. Michigan ranks 11th at 3.3.
“(Lavigne is) definitely taking charge, starting to move toward being our No. 1 guy which we need,” Pearson said. “We’ve been waiting for it, and he’s been playing really well, so good for him. He’s more aggressive, getting out of his crease more. Sometimes when you’re not playing well you want to stay back, it’s your comfort level so he’s got out of his comfort level.
“I know (goaltender coach) Steve Shields is working really close with him not only in the physical part and technical, but just the mental part of it, too, and I think once you have a couple of good games you start to feel better about yourself, too, and gain some confidence.”
And, the Wolverines have done something last weekend that even Berenson’s program couldn’t do during his brilliant career — sweep the Gophers in Minneapolis.
The Wolverines scored five goals in the series opener, then allowed a season-low 18 shots in the finale to earn a series sweep in Minnesota for the first time since the 1976-77 season, bringing home the Mariucci/Renfrew Coaches Trophy.
“You could see some really good things in our game against Notre Dame,” Pearson said. “Obviously we weren’t happy with the results, but happy with a lot of things we were doing. It’s the process. You have to do A, B, C, D and hopefully the results take care of themselves. It didn’t against Notre Dame, but it carried over in the Minnesota weekend.
“When your goalie plays well it gives your team confidence. You can play a little looser and you’re not hanging on every mistake or goal against. You can play with more confidence as a team and it helped that we got off to good starts in both games too. It’s a tough place to play, and they get after it. They’re skilled, they move the puck, can skate and can score and we only gave up 18 shots (Saturday). It was a good statement, a good step in the right direction for our team and now we have to back it up and continue to play well.”
Lavigne feels confident in his teammates and in his own play.
“I think we’ve really just come together after the break as a team and realized that it’s going to take more than just one or two games here and there and we’ve really just kind of been a lot more physical, been a lot more faster and our defensive zone has really tightened up a lot, started blocking more shots recently,” Lavigne said. “Our (penalty kill) and our power play just keep getting better as we go on, so it’s good steps in the right direction.
“I’ve been feeling more confident. I find myself a little farther out depth-wise, so I’m getting some of those saves that come through screens that I’m not really seeing or tip shots. I just think that’s been the biggest difference, that extra couple inches have been the difference between one goal against or three, so that’s the biggest change for me.”
No doubt, Lavigne feels confident moving forward and is looking forward to facing Penn State before the home fans.
“I feel that going in there (at Minnesota) while they were ranked ninth kind of shows that we can compete with anybody, and not just only compete since I feel like we dominated them in both games. Now, we feel if we play like we can we should expect to win.”
Pearson likes to hear that, especially since he feels the players now know what the coaching staff expects of them.
“They’re finally understanding completely what our expectations are and how we expect them to not only practice, but prepare and then play and the execution of that,” Pearson said. “It’s taken a little longer than what we would have hoped, but I think we’re starting to see that now. They’re much more comfortable with our systems and our expectations.
“We’ll have another shot at Notre Dame, another shot at Ohio State and another shot at Penn State. The team has put themselves in a really good position. Now, you have to continue to play well and back that up, but we’re now in a spot that we didn’t see ourselves in a month ago. We have an opportunity to now challenge for home ice in the playoffs, possibly knocking on the door for the tournament.”
Statement win for women’s hoops
Michigan’s women’s basketball team earned its statement win Tuesday night, defeating No. 8 Ohio State in Columbus, 84-75. The Wolverines were 0-4 in previous games against top-25 opponents this season.
The No. 19 Wolverines (16-4, 5-2) avenged a heartbreaking 78-71 overtime loss to the Buckeyes on Jan. 7 at the Crisler Center when they failed to hold a two-point lead while also owning the ball with 20 seconds left in regulation.
Michigan played with toughness in the rematch, holding a 44-31 rebounding advantage while shooting 53.7 percent from the field.
Hallie Thome, a 6-foot-5 junior, had a double-double (27 points, 11 rebounds) for Michigan with senior guard Katelynn Flaherty scoring 21, 18 in the second half, and junior guard Nicole Munger, a career-high 20 points.
Michigan will host Illinois at 6 p.m. Saturday (Big Ten Network) before playing Michigan State (14-5, 4-2) on Tuesday night in Ann Arbor. The rematch with the Spartans will take place Feb. 11 in East Lansing.