Michigan Still Working Through First Season Under Pearson
Before the season started, Michigan head coach Mel Pearson wanted to know where the goals would come from. The Wolverines averaged just 2.63 goals per game, 42nd in the country, last season. Meanwhile, goaltenders Zach Nagelvoort, Hayden Lavigne and Jack LaFontaine combined to give Michigan a solid goaltending foundation.
As far as wins and losses — Michigan is 7-7-2 — this season has gone just about how Pearson expected. The team is on the cusp of improving, but are still stuck in neutral, winning some games and losing others, mostly in close contests. But, he wasn’t expecting the team to be so potent on offense while struggling on defense.
The Wolverines's offense now averages 3.31 goals per game, tied for fifth in the country. Cooper Marody has 24 points already, which tops Jake Slaker’s team-leading total of 21 from last year.
“Given the results and every weekend, we've played pretty well,” Pearson said. “We've won or gotten points in all except for one, so we've been in games pretty well all year. The only one was the Ohio State home weekend. So for the most part, not really totally obviously satisfied where we're at, but having said that, I always look at the good things. It's glass half full.”
The glass-half-empty part is the team’s defense and goaltending, which surrenders 3.31 goals per game. While it’s not too far off from the 3.17 goals per game Michigan surrendered last year, Lavigne and LaFontaine have both posted subpar numbers. Lavigne’s save percentage is .898, while LaFontaine’s is at .884.
"Jack had only won one game last year, he's already up four this year. So that's a really good question why the numbers haven’t been as good,” Pearson said. “I don't think I can put my finger on it because they worked hard, they got another year of experience under them, we didn't lose that much on the back end.
“It could be the style we're playing, I don't know, we're not giving up as many shots, scoring opportunities, so that's a good question. That could be the answer, where they're not getting as much work as they're used to and it's harder to play in those games where you're not seeing the puck as much.”
While the sophomore goaltenders’ number stand out, they aren’t the sole enigma of Michigan’s lackluster backend. The whole team, Pearson said, needs to better defensively, making different mistakes each night. But Pearson said they are fixable.
"It’s got to be a team effort,” Pearson said. “But it starts with our goalies, through our defensemen and then obviously to our forwards."
When Pearson returned from his alma mater Michigan Tech to Michigan — where he was an assistant for many years and part of two national championships — he needed time to learn his players both on and off the ice. He also had to re-adjust himself; he was "coming home," so to speak, but still, replacing a legend in Red Berenson is not going to be the smoothest transition.
Through the process of limited practices, Pearson learned more about his team off-ice, and its chemistry.
"It’s a team that is actually close. You're always concerned about the chemistry, the culture, just the team itself,” Pearson said. “For the most part that's been very positive. … I think there's some character and some good leadership in this group."
Michigan is sixth in the conference, ahead of last-place Michigan State by four points. But only four points separate teams two-through-five, giving the Wolverines a chance to move ahead.
"We've been consistently inconsistent. We have a real good night one night, and the next night Michigan State's a prime example,” Pearson said. “You beat them 4-0, a good, solid game, and the next night you lose 5-0. … We've got to be able to understand the next night's going to be even harder. We've got to make sure that we don't enjoy or celebrate our wins too much and make sure we're ready to play the second night."
Michigan will open the second half of its season at the Great Lakes Invitational, Christening the tournament with its first college hockey games. Pearson will be the first person to be involved with the tournament in three different hockey rinks — he played at The Olympia, played and coached at Joe Louis Arena, and will now coach at Little Caesars Arena.
“I'm old enough that I played in The Olympia way back when ... so it's my 40th GLI,” Pearson said. “I've been involved with this GLI probably as much as anybody, more than anyone, so it's a very special tournament.”