Christmas is certainly the most wonderful time of the year. Not just because of the snow, presents, or good food, but because of some of the best tournaments in hockey. Along with international tournaments such as the World Junior Championships and Spengler Cup, the Great Lakes Invitational (GLI) has become a post-holiday tradition in the world of college hockey.
This year marks the 55th edition of the tournament, and it will take place once again at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit on Dec. 30 and 31.
For the 36th consecutive year, the Michigan Wolverines will be one of the four combatants.
It was only two seasons ago that the Wolverines were one win away from heading to the National Championship game. Since then, the team had a mediocre 13-16-7 season in 2018-19, and has stumbled through the first semester this season. Head coach Mel Pearson and company are hoping the GLI can be a kickstarter for a better second half of the regular season.
Ups and Downs
The Wolverines started off the season on the right foot, going 3-1-1 through the first three weeks of the regular season, which included a win over the then-No. 18 Western Michigan Broncos. However, UM fell into a seven-game losing streak, which included three weekend sweeps at the hands of Big Ten Conference rivals in the Ohio State Buckeyes, Minnesota Golden Gophers and Michigan State Spartans.
Michigan was able to bounce back after a split against Hockey East opponent New Hampshire Wildcats, before picking up splits against the No. 19 Wisconsin Badgers and the Penn State Nittany Lions, who were ranked No. 6 in the country.
Michigan heads into their 49th GLI appearance with a 6-10-2 record, but are 2-7-1 in conference play, placing them at the bottom of the Big Ten.
The Mann in Goal
While the Wolverines’ record shows they may have struggled to put the puck in the back of the net, they have actually been one of the better teams at keeping the puck out of theirs. Out of the six teams in the Big Ten, Michigan has given up the second-fewest number of goals overall this season, allowing only 39 in their first 18 games. Only the Buckeyes have allowed less.
Credit has to be given to arguably the Wolverines’ best player so far, goaltender Strauss Mann. Mann has started all but one game for Michigan this season, and the sophomore has found his groove in his second season in the maize and blue. Mann has allowed more than three goals only twice this season, and has one of the best save-percentages in the conference. His .931 SV% is third in the Big Ten, and tied for 12th in the entire NCAA.
Mann’s best performances so far this season have both come in winning efforts. He recorded a 36-save shutout against Western Michigan on Oct. 25, and he stopped 34 of 35 in the Wolverines’ win over Penn State on Dec. 6. The Greenwich, CT native has been the backbone of Michigan, and will have to continue to be at his best if the Wolverines want to have any post-season success come March.
Scoring by Committee
Michigan has had to really work to put goals on the board this season, as their 39 overall goals and 18 in Big Ten action both put them at the bottom of the conference. Heading into the GLI, they are taking a huge hit as their two leading scorers, Cam York and Johnny Beecher, are both heading to the Czech Republic to represent Team USA at the World Juniors.
This puts the pressure on the rest of the Wolverines lineup to step up in Detroit. Despite no Michigan player having more than 10 points this season, production has been spread out through the lineup. Leading the charge will be Jake Slaker, the undrafted senior out of San Diego, California.
Throughout his career at Michigan, Slaker has been a consistent 20-plus point scorer. His best season came in 2017-18 when he scored 27 points as a sophomore, helping Michigan to the Frozen Four. He has started off a little slower in 2019-20 than he had in his first three seasons in Ann Arbor, only scoring eight points through his first 15 games. However, he has still shown that he is a key player for the Wolverines’ offence.
Another senior that has stayed towards the top of the roster in scoring throughout his career has been Will Lockwood. In his freshman and junior seasons, Lockwood finished second in team scoring with 20 points and 31 points, respectively. He missed the second half of his sophomore season in 2017-18 with an injury he suffered at the World Juniors in Buffalo.
This season, Lockwood has shown why he has been one of the most consistent Wolverines over his career. The Vancouver Canucks’ prospect missed three games in early November due to injury, but bounced back to register four points in the Wolverines’ final six games before the break. Lockwood finishes the first semester with seven points in 15 games, tied with Nick Pastujov and Garrett Van Wyhe for fourth on the team in points.
The Wolverines have certainly not been impressive so far this season as they have been in years past. Long ago, when Red Berenson was behind the bench, the Wolverines seemed to always be favourites heading into the GLI, but not this year. However, a good showing in the tournament could be a stepping stone in the right direction for a team trying to get out of the Big Ten’s cellar.
The quest for the Wolverines’ tournament-leading 18th championship begins with a meeting against invitee Ferris State on Dec. 30.