Michigan head hockey coach Mel Pearson knows what’s at stake when his team takes the ice Thursday night in a national semifinal matchup against Denver in Boston.
Returning eight of their nine scorers from 2020-21 and featuring a roster with an NCAA-record seven first-round NHL draft picks, the Wolverines were considered a top national title contender before the puck dropped for their 2021-22 season.
They have lived up to the hype so far, winning the Big Ten tournament and earning the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. They are one of four teams still standing and need two more wins to capture the program’s first national title since 1998.
But Pearson also understands that possessing NHL talent doesn’t always translate to success in the NCAA Tournament. Before Michigan this season, only 11 other teams in NCAA history have had four or more first-round picks on their roster, and only two – North Dakota in 2006 and 2007 – have reached the Frozen Four.
Neither North Dakota team won it all. (Last year’s Michigan team had six first-round picks but forfeited its tournament opener because of COVID-19 protocols).
“Right away the challenge was out there for us to even make it to the Frozen Four,” Pearson told reporters last week. “There’s a lot of pressure, but what is pressure? Pressure is a lot of expectations that everybody puts on you and you have pressure on yourself. Our pressure was just to get better every day and try to have a great year. That’s why all these guys came back. They came back with a purpose. There was a real purpose here. They’ve been driven to do this. “
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Pearson, 63, was behind Michigan’s bench as an assistant coach when the team knocked off Boston College 3-2 in overtime in the 1998 championship game in Boston. He has been back to the Frozen Four six times since, including once as a head coach in 2018, but is still looking to reclaim college hockey’s top prize.
But Pearson believes this year’s team is equipped to win it all. Michigan’s three star sophomores – Owen Power, Matty Beniers and Kent Johnson – were all top-five draft picks last July but opted to return to Ann Arbor instead of turning pro.
Michigan added another talented freshman class, headlined by fellow first-round picks Luke Hughes (No. 4 overall) and Mackie Samoskevich (No. 24), and possess a strong senior leadership group, Pearson said.
The Wolverines have remained in the top 10 in the national rankings all year but have faced their fair share of adversity. Several of their top players missed a handful of games to compete at the World Junior Championships and the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
The team also lost its final two regular season games to miss out on a Big Ten title.
Fifth-year senior Michael Pastujov is the lone player who had NCAA Tournament experience before this year, but Pearson believes his players have adapted well to the spotlight.
Michigan jumped on American International College early with two quick goals in a 5-3 tournament-opening victory. It took a 4-0 lead into the third period against Quinnipiac in the second round and allowed the Bobcats to cut its lead to one with just under nine minutes remaining, but Michigan responded with three goals in the final four minutes of a 7-4 win.
“It hasn’t been easy at times,” Pearson said. “There’s been a lot of detours in the road to get where we want to go as far as World Junior, Olympics, COVID again, two players out with season-ending injuries, some embarrassing losses – there are a lot of things in there.
“These guys have dealt with a lot. Regarding the experience, we have had a lot of guys playing big time games in big circumstances, and it was huge to make a run through the Big Ten playoffs. That gave us a real feel of the NCAA Tournament, especially the semifinals and the finals because that was a single game knockout. Then, obviously, the two games were huge for our team. I know we’re gonna play better. Just getting through those two games, I was more concerned about that than I am how we’re going to do in the Frozen Four because you get that experience. I feel really good about this team and really good about the experiences that they’ve had. ”
Michigan played in front of less than 4,000 fans in both of its regional games in Allentown, Pennsylvania, but a much larger crowd is expected to be on hand for the Frozen Four at 19,580-capacity TD Garden.
However, Hughes, who leads all NCAA defenseman with 17 goals and 39 points, said the team doesn’t feel any added pressure now that it has reached the semifinals.
“It’s such an exciting time,” Hughes told MLive. “It’s so hard to get to a Frozen Four and it’s so hard to win. I think everyone is dialed in and really excited.
“Everyone on the team has high expectations and we all want to win, but there’s no pressure. We’re just playing the game we love and trying to do the best we can. ”
As for Pearson, he says he isn’t the same coach he was in 1998, but he’s hoping for the same outcome.
“Obviously know a lot more about the game and what it takes to get to that point and how to handle those situations,” he said of his evolution as a coach. “Back then I was just a young, emotional assistant coach. You still have emotion, but that’s where I’ve grown the most – just have a better feel and better understanding. A lot calmer.
“I think you learn a lot and just the logistics of getting ready for the week and trying to put all the distractions behind you. Just trying to put everything aside so come (this) week, we can just focus on the games and making sure that we put our players in the best position to have success. That’s what we’re trying to do as coaches. We understand what it’s going to take for the most part and we have to just try to relay that to the players. ”
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