The Michigan № 2 hockey team can win the Big Ten. Maybe not.
It really doesn’t matter
Going into Wolverine’s face-to-face fight against № 11 Ohio, that’s it seemed as if there were many on the line. Michigan took first place in the conference with two points over Minnesota No. 5 and three over the Parties. It looked like a pair of decisive victories could bring Wolverine out of reach and strengthen them as de facto champions of the Big Ten.
But despite convenient sweeping Ohio and scoring six points, the Golden Gophers kept a distance of two points. Comparing 16-6 Big Ten records and each team has one series left – Minnesota will meet Wisconsin at home and Michigan will meet Notre Dame № 12 away – it’s still a season for someone.
“Now the hockey playoffs,” second-year forward Philip Lapoint said after Saturday’s game. “It comes down to the little things. The tournament position is close. We expect to make good games, be good in defense and have good habits for hockey in the playoffs in the future. “
But, to be honest, who cares?
The question is, of course, rhetorical and clearly exaggerated. Players care. Michigan coach Mel Pearson cares. Fans care. But with that scope – and many who were before him – Michigan has shown that it has potential far beyond the regular season of the Big Ten.
Wolverines are currently ranked second in the USCHO rankings. The only other ranking teams in the conference are Gophers, Ohio and Fighting Irish, which are 5th, 11th and 12th respectively. A month ago it was Michigan predicted be number 2 seeded in the NCAA tournament and, given that the team has not lost a single game since, it is unlikely that they will fall below the top four.
If the Wolverines win the conference title, it’s another feather in their cap. If not, they will go to the Big Ten tournament, probably still holding a regional tournament and possibly making a serious participation in the NCAA tournament, however.
None of this means that the series is irrelevant next weekend – quite the opposite. Fighting Notre Dame in the South Bend will be one of the most challenging challenges Michigan has faced this season. Fighting Irish is the only team in the conference that the Wolverines have not yet won after two after a while losses in November.
The next weekend provides an opportunity not only to win the top ten, but also to prove that Wolverines can cope with the pressure of the “do or die” scenario.
Outside of conference games, Michigan has shown its ability to handle the problem. At the beginning of the season, “Raamahi” won then “No”. 5 Minnesota Duluth, 5-1. The next day they were ahead of number 1 Minnesota. A week later, Michigan struggled with the then No. 17 – now № 6 – Western Michigan for a serious overtime victory on the road after losing to the Broncos in Yost.
But Wolverine has very little experience with post-season pressure. Last year, Michigan was forced to withdraw from the NCAA tournament hours before the first game due to problems with COVID under the program. A year earlier, the tournament had been canceled before it even began. A year earlier whatWolverines did not even qualify.
This means that only of the Michigan players, fifth-year senior forward Michael Pastuzhov, has experience in NCAA tournaments.
“It’s a cause for concern,” Pearson told reporters in September ahead of the season. “For the last two years we have been right on the border (to play in a tournament). … This is one of the things that worries us. I can’t go down to 7-Eleven just on Main Street and buy the NCAA tournament experience. I can’t rip off a lottery ticket that I can buy later and (get) the NCAA tournament experience. You can’t get that.
“Hopefully our schedule and the teams we’ve played with and the situations we’ve been in the last couple of years will help us, but if you get to this one-on-one tournament, it’s a different kid.”
The way Wolverines struggled with emotional matches this weekend was a start, but from that the stakes are only increasing.
Next weekend Michigan won’t just be playing for the top ten – he will be playing to prove he has everything he needs to do it in April.