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If you would have told Michigan head coach Mel Pearson in September that he’d be sitting with an overall record of 6-7-4 in mid-December, he likely wouldn’t have believed you.
After closing out 2017-18 with a sizzling second-half run that ended with a berth in the Frozen Four, Pearson and Michigan’s faithful following had visions of those winning ways continuing in 2018-19.
A season-opening loss at home to Vermont hinted at the inconsistent play that the Wolverines would display in the 2018 half of their schedule.
Pearson sat down with The Wolverine to look forward to the second half of Michigan’s 2018-19 slate and addressed a number of topics.
On the offensive improvement needed:
“We need more scoring from our secondary lines, other than the one line. The first line has been really good, the SNL line, with [junior forward Jake] Slaker, [sophomore forward Josh] Norris and [junior forward Will] Lockwood.
“If they have an off night, where’s the scoring going to come from? I think [junior forward] Nick Pastujov has stepped up. [Sophomore forward] Jack Becker has stepped up recently, but we need more from the rest of the guys.
“Having said that, most of our guys are freshmen and sophomores, so they’re still finding their way. Becker didn’t have any goals last year at Christmas and he ended up with eight or nine.
“We expect some of the same things to happen with our freshmen. They really won’t be freshmen anymore [in the second half of the season]. They understand more. They’re more ‘ready to go’ and they break out. So, we need more secondary scoring.
“Our power play has to continue to be solid. If it is, we have a chance. We have so many chances. We have to continue to score there, too.”
On the need for consistency on defense going forward:
“We’re looking for more consistency. We’ve been really inconsistent. Too many bad giveaways, out of position, turnovers, things like that.
“We’re going to make mistakes. Hockey’s a game of mistakes, but we have to limit the number. It seems like every time we make a mistake, the puck’s in the net.
“Against Michigan State on the Saturday-night, second game of the series, we hadn’t allowed a shot all period. Then, they get one chance and bang, the puck’s in the net. It seems that’s how the first half has gone. When we make a mistake, it seems like it’s ending up in our net.”
On the goaltending rounding into form:
“Our goaltending is a big part of the defensive inconsistency too. It was really inconsistent early. Lately, it’s been pretty good, if you take the last eight games [into account].
“I’d be probably pretty happy with our goaltending other than one or two up in Lansing. That looks like it’s going to continue to grow and get better.”
On the chances for a 2019 that mirrors last season’s second-half quantum leap forward:
“We do think we’re capable of everything we did last year. [Sophomore defenseman] Quinn Hughes and I were just talking about that with the other coaches this morning. He had just watched video of the Frozen Four from last year.
“We have the goaltending. We have the goalie who got us there [junior Hayden Lavigne], and we have the young guy [freshman Strauss Mann] who’s pushing him.
“We have five of the six defensemen returning who got us there. We’re very capable there with young kids like [freshman Nick] Blankenburg and [freshman Jack] Summers. We have more depth there.
“Up front, we have a line that can match any line in college hockey. We’ve got guys like Nick Pastujov, [sophomore] Mike Pastujov and Jack Becker. We have a lot of guys returning who played last year. [Senior] Brendan Warren was a second-line guy.
“We have all the talent we need. It’s just taking that recipe and getting everything together and making the final product. We’re in the final process of making that cake.
“It’s easy to say that, but it takes work. It takes some mental toughness and mental preparation.
“Everybody needs to buy in and play for the team. I think that’s what happened last year. We had really good leadership. Last year was one of the closest teams I’ve ever had. We need that this year. You can’t force that. If we can find that, we have a chance.”
Michigan will have the first chance to fulfill Pearson’s wishes on Dec. 30-31 when they travel to Little Caesar’s Arena in Detroit for the annual holiday Great Lakes Invitational Tournament (GLI). The Wolverines open the GLI against tournament host Michigan Tech on Dec. 30 and will follow up with a contest against either Lake Superior State or Michigan State on New Year’s Eve, the next day.
As has become the custom over the last decade or so, the Wolverines will play short-handed in the tourney with Hughes and Norris skating for Team USA in the World Junior Championships (WJC) in western Canada through early January.
For those interested in following Hughes’ and Norris’ international exploits, the NHL Network will have extensive live coverage of the WJC, including all games played by Team USA.
The 2019 portion of the schedule includes only five home games at Yost Ice Arena, eight away games and four at neutral sites. The neutral-site games are the pair of GLI contests, an outdoor game at Notre Dame (Football) Stadium on Jan. 5 and a tilt against Michigan State at Little Caesar’s Arena in Detroit on Saturday, Feb. 9.