Ann Arbor — Michigan first-year head coach Mel Pearson knows his Wolverines will be a big underdog heading into the Big Ten hockey tournament semifinal game next Saturday at No. 6 Ohio State.
But Pearson ended his news conference after Michigan’s quarterfinal sweep over Wisconsin Saturday night with a wink, knowing his Wolverines were playing well, heading in with a seven-game winning streak and all but locked in to one of the 16 spots for the NCAA Tournament.
The Wolverines have confidence and nothing to lose after the sweep of the Badgers.
The Wolverines are ranked No. 12 nationally in the USCHO poll, but more importantly No. 7 in the latest PairWise rankings. A loss to Ohio State will not hurt their NCAA Tournament outlook.
“They whipped us, it’s out there, the only team I believe in the Big Ten that we didn’t beat this year,” said Pearson of the Buckeyes. “They took us four games and made it look easy. We’re a huge underdog and we just hope to go down there and keep it close.”
Ohio State defeated Michigan 3-2 and 5-1 Nov. 24-25 at Yost, then swept the Wolverines 4-0 and 5-3 Jan. 26-27 in Columbus. Michigan is 8-1-1 since the last meeting between the teams.
Pearson’s not focused on the PairWise rankings, just the game ahead.
“We’ve got a goal of winning the Big Ten championship,” Pearson said. “We’ll try to get as far as we can and then let the chips for the (NCAA) Tournament fall where they may. I know it’s in the back of their minds, our players, but as a coaching staff we just want to make sure we just get prepared and win that next game and get a Big Ten championship.”
Michigan won the Big Ten tournament title two years ago with Kyle Connor scoring four goals in the semifinal win, then leaving after his freshman year, along with several other top players who left early for the pro ranks. The Wolverines slumped to a 13-19-3 record last year — the final year of legendary Red Berenson’s coaching career — due to the departures while Pearson was guiding Michigan Tech to the WCHA tournament title.
Michigan is 20-13-3 this season, showing a big improvement due to a strong top line consisting of seniors Cooper Marody, Tony Calderone and Dexter Dancs. Calderone scored four goals in Friday’s 6-5 opener — to give him a Big Ten-leading 23 goals on the season — when the Wolverines scored four power-play goals, and Dancs scored twice in Saturday’s 7-4 Game 2 win when they scored six even-strength goals.
“I’m really happy for them,” said Pearson of the top line and senior class. “They’ve had some struggles here and they’ve had some good moments here also and I’m real happy for them. You need your seniors to be your leaders, your seniors and juniors this time of year and I think they’ve stepped up. Dancs, Marody, Calderone, those guys have really stepped up so good for them and good for us.
“We want to play 5-on-5 and I think we’re starting to get more contributions from a lot of different players and it makes us more dangerous.”
The Wolverines received two goals from sophomore Jake Slaker, including an empty-netter in Game 2, along with one from freshman Jack Becker.
And, Pearson felt good with the play of sophomore goaltender Hayden Lavigne and his defense.
“He was good,” said Pearson of Lavigne, who has been a major factor in Michigan’s 12-3-1 run during the second half of the season, facing a season-high 53 shots in the opener and 32 in Game 2. “You look at nine goals against on the weekend and figure, man the goalie was off. There’s probably one or two he’d like to have back, but there’s a lot of key saves in there, too. In the second period they get a breakaway, then a two-on-one and he stones them at a critical time.
“I like our defense. Even though we gave up a lot of goals I like a lot of things about them. We have to clean some things up, but I like this team going forward.”
Lavigne was at his best late in the second period when he made a save on Seamus Malone’s short-handed breakaway shot with the Wolverines holding a 4-3 lead, then another on Linus Weissbach’s odd-man rush minutes later, setting the scene for Dancs second goal of the night with 7.7 seconds left in the period for a 5-3 cushion.
Big Ten semifinals
Michigan at Ohio State
When: Saturday, 7:30
TV: BTN, ESPNU
Penn State at Notre Dame
When: Saturday, 5:30
TV: BTN, ESPNU