Ann Arbor – Michigan coach Mel Pearson ran across Red Berenson Rink at Yost Arena in celebration Sunday night, moments after Tony Calderone jumped into the outstretched arms of goalie Hayden Lavigne following the Wolverines’ 1-0 victory over No. 1 Notre Dame to cap off a weekend series sweep.
Calderone, the senior captain, scored his team-high 17th goal, the second of the series and the game’s lone goal Sunday in the final minute of the second period, while Lavigne turned aside all 34 shots he faced.
Pearson said he didn’t think it was a statement series, but it certainly was a significant moment in the first year of the Pearson Era at Michigan.
Pearson, in a class move after the game, praised his predecessor, Berenson.
“This is the way it should be at Michigan, this is the way it should be every weekend – expect to win against the best teams in the country,” Pearson said. “Red left a lot of good pieces here and I’m a recipient of that. We’ve never been far off and this program will continue to grow.
“We’ll have our moments, just like every program does. I don’t want to say it’s a signature weekend or anything like that, but I think we’ve proved that if we play the right way, when we get after it and we’re ready to compete and get goaltending, I think we can be pretty good. I think that’s all that says, but you know that’s a big statement.”
Pearson was an assistant coach under Berenson for 23 years, helping to guide the Wolverines to a pair of national titles (1996, 1998) and another national title game appearance in 2011, an overtime loss to Minnesota Duluth. He spent the last six seasons as head coach at Michigan Tech before taking the Michigan job last spring following Berenson’s retirement.
No. 13 Michigan has now earned the right to host a best-of-three Big Ten quarterfinal series March 2-4, and the sweep of Notre Dame puts the Wolverines No. 11 in the PairWise rankings, inching closer to grabbing one of the 16 spots for the NCAA tournament, which gets underway March 23.
The Wolverines are playing with confidence and have momentum heading into their final regular-season series this weekend at home against Arizona State (8-19-5).
Michigan played Notre Dame tough the last time the teams met Jan. 5 and 7, suffering a pair of 2-1 losses to fall to 8-10-2. It was at that time that Lavigne took grasp of the No. 1 job in net, and the Wolverines have gone 8-3-1 since that series loss to move up to third in the Big Ten standings (11-10-3, 38 points).
The Wolverines are enjoying one of the biggest turnarounds in college hockey after going 13-19-3 (6-12-2) last season.
Lavigne, a 6-foot-3 sophomore, turned aside 68 shots in the sweep of Notre Dame, including all 34 shots he faced Sunday. He is now 12-9-3 with a 2.61 goals-against average and .912 save percentage.
“I don’t think going into this weekend that anybody besides us expected us to win two games, so it’s kind of nice to go out there and prove everybody wrong – just a great feeling,” Lavigne said. “We did great. Our PK picked up a little bit. We did a great job getting into the shooting lanes, blocking shots, and for the most part we kept their chances to the outside, kind of made my job pretty easy.”
Lavigne feels Michigan is a contender for the Big Ten tourney title.
“All it takes is two wins in the first round, and from there on it’s one game at a time,” Lavigne said.
Lavigne stole the show from sophomore sensation Cale Morris, who entered Sunday leading the nation in save percentage (.947), closing in on Jimmy Howard’s all-time NCAA record (.956) while playing at Maine more than a decade ago, and also the .950 save percentage Ryan Miller had during his Hobey Baker award season for the Spartans in 2000-01.
“That team is as good as any team in the country,” said Pearson of Notre Dame. “We needed a game like this, a tight game like this. I thought that was really good for our team to win one because we squandered some leads in the third period. We ended up winning most of those games, but this game we were much better.
“We played with the lead all weekend. Our guys were ready to play (Sunday) and that’s on our players. As coaches you can tell them some things and show them some things, but you have to reach down as each individual and figure out a way to get yourself ready to compete, and compete they did, and good for them and good for us.”
The Wolverines had three different lines score goals in the 4-2 win Friday at Notre Dame with Calderone and Dexter Dancs each scoring from the top line, Adam Winborg from the third line and Michael Pastujov from the fourth.
“Our depth has grown,” Pearson said. “We knew we had some issues, but over the course of the year they’ve grown and matured as players and as people and I think that’s one of the biggest differences.”
Dancs and Calderone are the lone senior forwards among players on the four lines. Cutler Martin and Sam Piazza are the lone senior defensemen.
Pearson said his players have bought in to the coaching staff’s expectations and systems, no one more than freshman forward Dakota Raabe.
“He’s really improved,” said Pearson of Raabe, who played on the penalty killing unit and was on the ice in the final minute Sunday. “We had to sit him out one weekend. He had some issues and we took his stuff out of the locker room. He just had to understand what Michigan was about and what our expectations are. We don’t have rules, we have expectations. I trust him now. He’s come a long way.”