Michigan standing tall as Big Ten hockey tourney nears

David Goricki

Ann Arbor — First-year head coach Mel Pearson has his Wolverines right where he wants them heading into the stretch drive of the regular season.

After all, Pearson knows No. 18 Michigan will secure home ice for the first-round of the Big Ten League tournament with a successful weekend against top-ranked Notre Dame.

And, Michigan (14-13-3, 9-10-3) is also in the hunt for an NCAA tournament bid — the 16-team tourney starts March 23 — holding on to the No. 15 spot in the PairWise rankings.

The Wolverines play at Notre Dame (22-6-2, 16-3-1) Friday night before the teams return to Yost Arena in Ann Arbor Sunday at 5:30 p.m. (BTN). Michigan then plays host to Arizona State Feb. 23-24 before the Big Ten tourney’s first-round best-of-three series gets underway on campus sites March 2-4.

Notre Dame, in its first year in the league, has already clinched the Big Ten regular season championship, owns the first-round bye and will host a semifinal March 10. The title game will be played at the site of the highest advancing seed on March 17 with the NCAA tournament selection show held on the following day.

“This is what you want,” Pearson said. “You want to have control of the opportunity for your destination, where you want to be. It’s right in front of us and so we have to grab it. Can we? Well, we’re playing maybe the best team in the country so it’s not going to be easy. Like I’ve always said, it’s a huge challenge but a greater opportunity. We’ll be anxious, excited and ready to play.

“I feel we need one (win) for sure (to get home ice) and we’re going in with the feeling we have to win two this weekend because if we have a tough weekend Penn State can close in right away since they have a possible 12 points available with four games left.”

Michigan is sitting third in the Big Ten standings with 32 points, three ahead of Minnesota, four ahead of Wisconsin and seven ahead of Penn State. The Wolverines have played 22 league games, the same as Wisconsin, but two more than Minnesota and Penn State.

Ohio State (19-7-4, 12-7-1, 37 points) is locked into one of the home ice slots while Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Penn State will be battling it out for the other two spots. Wisconsin plays at Ohio State Feb. 23-24 while Minnesota plays host to Ohio State this weekend before playing at Penn State Feb. 23-24. Penn State plays at Michigan State this weekend.

The Wolverines played Notre Dame tough the last time the teams played Jan. 5 and 7 with the Irish coming away with 2-1 victories each night. The Wolverines have gone 6-3-1 since that series to put them in the hunt for home ice in the league playoffs.

And, a win against the Irish would go a long way to getting that home ice spot.

Freshman Jack Becker, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound forward, owns a plus-3 rating and has seven goals, including one Saturday night in the 3-2 win over rival Michigan State at Little Caesars Arena.

Pearson was an assistant coach at Michigan Tech 30 years ago when Becker’s father, Russ, was a defenseman for the team. As head coach at Tech Pearson recruited Jack last season, then brought Becker with him after accepting the job at Michigan.

“We recruited Russ Becker to Michigan Tech when I was an assistant back there. Russ played up in Minnesota in the Iron Range at Virginia High School, he was a big rangy kid just like Jack,” recalled Pearson. “Russ was a good player, a stay at home defenseman who was drafted in the later rounds by the Islanders.

“I started recruiting Jack when I was at Tech, I knew the family, obviously Russ, and we were recruiting in Minnesota quite a bit so I had the chance to watch Jack, who played on a good team, made the state tournament, which is a big deal for high school hockey in Minnesota.

“I thought Jack could come in and contribute a little bit, but he hadn’t scored the whole first half of the season. He was in and out of the lineup, but he’s really taken off since he’s come back (from break).”

With an injury to Will Lockwood in late December, Becker was given a bigger role and has made the most of his opportunity, now getting power play time while also playing on a line with Nick and Michael Pastujov.

Becker has scored six goals in the last eight games.

“I was recruited to play at Michigan Tech, and then Coach (Pearson) got the Michigan job and brought me here,” pointed out Becker. “I’ve had the chance to have a bigger role since the break, playing some on the power play and on a line with the Pastujovs.

“My strength is getting in front of the net, getting some shots off. We all try to play strong at both ends of the ice and we get the chance, at times, to go up against some of the top lines, which is a great opportunity for us.”

And, Becker’s play has made Michigan a tougher team to play in recent months, a reason the Wolverines have a lot to play for in the upcoming weeks.