Ann Arbor — You can bet Mel Pearson will long remember his first year behind the Michigan bench as the Wolverines head coach.
After all, the Wolverines are in the Frozen Four, just two wins away from earning the title of national champions.
And, that’s coming with Michigan being the nation’s third youngest team, coming off a 13-19-3 season (6-12-2 Big Ten) and predicted to finish sixth in the preseason Big Ten League poll.
Yes, Pearson is assured to keep this season in his memory bank the same way he did when he was a longtime assistant under Red Berenson when the Wolverines won national titles in 1996, again in 1998 and advanced to the national title game in 2011, losing in overtime to Minnesota-Duluth.
It was back in 2011 at the Xcel Center in Minneapolis that Michigan battled Minnesota-Duluth to a 2-2 tie after regulation, only to see Duluth pull it out in OT to grab the ultimate trophy.
By the way, that loss to Minnesota-Duluth was Pearson’s final game as an assistant, taking the head job at Michigan Tech just weeks later, then turning Tech’s program around where it made a pair of NCAA tournament appearances in the last three years, including one last season, before moving on to take the Michigan job after Berenson retired after 33 years.
Now it’s back to the Xcel Center, where Michigan will be making its national record 25th Frozen Four appearance — matching Boston College — where it will play Big Ten regular season and tournament champion Notre Dame April 5. Ohio State will play Minnesota-Duluth in the other semifinal game, with the winners facing off for the championship April 7.
“I’m just really, really excited for our players and proud and happy for Red (Berenson) and all our alums, so it’s great to be back to the Big Dance,” Pearson said. “I think Red’s excited. He’s a big part of this team. It’s as much or more of his team than it is mine. He recruited the guys, worked with these kids so it’s great to have him around. His fingerprints are all over this team, so it’s just fabulous that we could have some success and he could be involved and enjoy it.”
The Wolverines (22-14-3) defeated Northeastern 3-2 Saturday, followed by a 6-3 win over Boston University Sunday in the Northeast Regional championship game.
In the title game, Michigan scored three third-period goals to break a 3-3 tie with Jake Slaker’s shot with 13:33 left bouncing off a BU defenseman and past 6-foot-4 sophomore goalie Jake Oettinger (2017 first-round draft pick of Dallas Stars) for a 4-3 lead.
Plymouth native Nicholas Boka, a junior defenseman, gave the Wolverines some breathing room when he poked the puck ahead to Dexter Dancs in his own zone and Dancs skated down the right side before flipping the puck in front to Boka who scored his first goal of the season for a 5-3 cushion with 3:42 left.
“I’m surprised it’s Nick Boka’s first goal because he shows you offensive instincts and he’s a really good skater, so I’m not surprised he blew by their guy and got open, but Dexter Dancs has to make the play and when you’re on a 2-on-1 with a guy who has no goals, you probably hope the guy who has 12 (Dancs) shoots the puck, but it was a great pass by Dancs and a great play by Boka at the net, takes it on his backhand, brings it back to his forehand and tucks it in,” said Pearson of Boka’s goal.
“It looked like he (Boka) had done it 100 times. It was a huge goal. He grew up here in Michigan, and he’s an all-in kid, plays hard, plays with his emotion on his sleeve. He only knows how to play one way and that’s all-out and all-in.”
Oh, and Pearson had high praise for Slaker, a sophomore forward who picked up his 15th goal for the game winner.
“We have to give him a new nickname like Mr. Third Period,” said Pearson, noting it was Slaker’s 10th third period goal of the season. “It was a good shot. He cuts across, gets the goalie moving a little bit and he shoots it in between the defensemen’s leg, catches the guy’s shin pad and the goalie had no chance. It was so quick, the shot, and that deflection really changed direction. I tell the guys to shoot the puck and hit the net, force goalies to have to stop the puck and he’s (Oettinger) played exceptionally well, first-round draft pick, World Junior goalie, so good for us.
“Our guys hung in there and got it done. I tell people all the time that some time the big guys get it done, but a lot of times it’s the guys you don’t talk a lot about who have the big moments on the big stage and obviously for Boka he did just that.”
The top line of Cooper Marody, Tony Calderone and Dancs is playing well, with Marody scoring two goals and Dancs one in the win over Northeastern, and Calderone giving Michigan a 2-1 lead in the regional title game for his team-leading 24th goal.
Back in September, Pearson said he was “excited and anxious to see them and how they perform. We’ll find out a lot about our team, where we are and some things we need to work on.”
And, Pearson did find out a lot about his team in the first half and what it needed to improve on. The staff has done a great job and the players have bought in, going from 8-10-2 in the first half to 22-14-3 heading into the Frozen Four.
“We’re the third youngest team in the country. BU might have been the youngest and I think Boston College maybe was the other one,” Pearson said. “I think that’s why we got off to a rough start, we were young at every position and all of these guys have really grown and matured so much in a short period of time, and we’re still growing as a team and that’s the beauty of it.”
The Wolverines will be playing Notre Dame as perhaps college hockey’s hottest team, going 9-1-1 in their last 10 games.
Michigan has played well against Notre Dame, losing a pair of 2-1 games back in January before starting its 14-4-1 run in the second half which included a 4-2 win in South Bend Feb. 16 and a 1-0 victory over the Irish at Yost Arena Feb. 18.
“I think all three of the four games we’re one goal games and then we won 4-2 one night,” said Pearson of Michigan’s series with the Irish. “I just wish it was for the championship (April 5 semifinal). I think it will be a great hockey game. I think you have two teams who know each other pretty well. It’s anybody’s game and that’s the beauty of it.
“They’re the favorite, no doubt. They’re the favorites going in, the Big Ten regular season and tournament champs. I think Notre Dame’s the only team in the field that’s won a championship, regular season or tournament.
“We’re the underdogs. Nobody expected us. We were picked to finish sixth in the league. Everything’s a bonus now for us.”
Twenty years ago the Wolverines entered the Frozen Four in Boston as underdogs with 10 freshmen and defeated Boston College in overtime to win the national championship.
Ten years ago the Wolverines entered the Frozen Four in Denver as the nation’s No. 1 ranked team and got beat by Notre Dame in the national semifinals … in OT.
One things for sure, Pearson has no issues traveling to Minneapolis as the underdog this time around.
At Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul, Minn.
Michigan vs. Notre Dame
Faceoff: Thursday, April 5, 9:30 p.m.
Records: Michigan 22-14-3, Notre Dame 27-9-2
Minnesota-Duluth vs. Ohio State
Faceoff: Thursday, April 5, 6 p.m.
Records: Minnesota-Duluth 23-16-3, Ohio State 26-9-5
Faceoff: Saturday, April 7, 7:30 p.m.