ANN ARBOR — Michigan's hockey team doesn't need any reminders of where it stands in the NCAA Tournament picture.
The Wolverines began the season ranked No. 4 but haven't lived up to the preseason hype, entering Thursday's home game against No. 15 Penn State one game below .500 and No. 27 in the Pairwise rankings, a strong indicator of who will make the 16-team tournament.
For a realistic shot at receiving an at-large bid, they will likely have to move up to at least No. 13 in the pairwise with nine games remaining in the regular season.
Michigan took a step in the right direction Thursday, scoring four second-period goals in a 5-1 win over the Nittany Lions. With the victory, the Wolverines (9-9-6, 5-5-4-2 Big Ten) moved up to No. 24, while Penn State (13-10-6, 5-9-1-1) dropped two spots to No. 20.
"I look at it every day," sophomore forward Dakota Raabe said of the pairwise rankings. "It is not something you can really worry about, but each game is another step wanting to move forward. We have been talking about it lately, just taking each game step by step."
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Penn State was the third ranked opponent Michigan has defeated this month, but after wins over then-No. 6 Notre Dame and No. 4 Ohio State, the Wolverines dropped their next game.
Moving forward, Raabe said the players know they need to play with more consistency if they are going to make the tournament for the second straight year.
"I think we just have to play simple, not try and do too much," said Raabe, who gave the Wolverines a 1-0 lead at the 3:10 mark of the second period. "Just get pucks behind them (defensemen), play good defense, being good in our end and, usually when we are good in our end, that creates more offense in their zone.
"I think that is the biggest thing we have to keep doing moving forward."
On Thursday, the Wolverines received timely scoring and quality goaltending, two things they haven't had consistently all season.
Junior goaltender Hayden Lavigne made 15 saves in the first period to keep the game scoreless, despite the Nittany Lions controlling much of the play.
Once Raabe scored in the second, the Wolverines turned it up a gear. Forwards Jake Slaker and Will Lockwood and defenseman Nicholas Boka all scored in a 52-second span later in the period to give Michigan a 4-0 lead.
That was all the cushion needed for Lavigne, who finished with 37 saves. Penn State entered Thursday averaging a nation-best 4.67 goals and 39.3 shots per game.
Standing in front of iconic Madison Square Garden where we take the ice tomorrow. Can't wait !— Mel Pearson (@CoachPearsonUM) January 25, 2019
〽️GoBlue !! pic.twitter.com/X3UWXeLG1W
"That is the Hayden Lavigne we all know," Slaker said. "I think we saw it last year. He has been playing really well of late so, I think we are going to start seeing that more from him."
Lavigne has started five of the past six games, allowing two goals or fewer in four of them. Last season, he started the Wolverines' final 23 games as they went 15-7-1 down the stretch to reach the Frozen Four.
"He just looks calm in the net, keeps things simple," Michigan head coach Mel Pearson said. "He doesn't overreact. But he is competing. He is working hard to compete on every shot, and good for him.
"He didn't do that in the first half, and he will be honest with you. He's been much better."
Whereas the players might be looking at the pairwise rankings, Pearson remains focused on winning a Big Ten title.
Thursday's victory moves Michigan into a second-place tie with Minnesota, but it still is eight points behind Ohio State.
"I think everyone knows what is going on and where we are," Pearson said. "We want to win a Big Ten championship. We do talk about that. It is within our grasp. If we go out and play like we can, we have a chance, and that is all we are talking about right now.
"The only way we are going to win a Big Ten championship is if we show up every night and work hard. I like this group."
If the Wolverines are able to catch the Buckeyes, they likely would be in good shape in the pairwise with the amount of wins needed to leap them. And if they don't, they could still clinch an automatic berth by winning the Big Ten tournament.
"I like our work ethic," Pearson said. "I enjoy coming to the rink every day. You would think there is a birthday party going on every day before practice. They are professional enough that when they need to work, they work. They are all really good young men. They're a lot of fun to be around."
This article is written by Ryan Zuke from MLive.com, Walker, Mich. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.