BY GJON JUNCAJ
Daily Sports Writer
Published December 4, 2008
Rivalry games come with many givens: hatred, trash talk, fierce hits, wild crowds and a lot of clichés. But this weekend, there's one tradition missing from the No. 14 Michigan hockey team’s home-and-home series with Michigan State.
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The Wolverines (5-5 CCHA, 9-7-0 overall) enter tonight’s matchup losers of five of their past eight games and are still searching for consistent scoring. Meanwhile, the Spartans (2-6-2-2, 4-9-3) are winless in their past nine contests, largely because of offensive woes. Michigan State ranks last in the conference in goals and has been outscored 43-25 this season.
The Spartans' discouraging month of November has been exacerbated by two blowout losses, one to No. 4 Miami (Ohio) and the other at Nebraska-Omaha. Michigan State lost those two contests by a combined score of 12-2.
“You watch a lot of their tape, and it’s a fine line between them winning and losing,” Michigan assistant coach Mel Pearson said. “They’re right there in most of their games, but it still comes back to your team.
“So you try, maybe this year, not to talk about them as much. Because you can’t sugarcoat it. Their record is what it is in the past nine games. But we’ve talked more about our record (and) how we’re playing.”
The Wolverines carry their lowest ranking entering a matchup with Michigan State since at least 2002. Unexpected injuries on the blueline and a disturbing lack of offensive support for senior goalie Billy Sauer have facilitated Michigan’s fall from its preseason No. 2 ranking.
In a strange way, the Wolverines’ and Spartans’ struggles illustrate why this series could have more meaning than in recent years. The two teams have been ranked in the top 10 in each of their past eight meetings. In the past, Michigan and Michigan State were fighting for breathing room near the top of the conference standings.
Now it's about establishing an identity.
“(This weekend) might take on another dimension,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “Because right now, both teams are trying to prove they’re not as bad as they look.”
The Wolverines and Spartans currently trail first-place Miami in the standings by nine and 11 points. A potential sweep means four points, which could spring the victor back into the conference race. There’s plenty of urgency to go along with bragging rights.
“We have to have a good weekend if we’re going to have any momentum going into the second half of the season,” junior Chris Summers said. "(Tonight) is our biggest game of the year.”
Goals will be at a premium this weekend. The Wolverines looked their best this season in games where they relentlessly crashed the net to create scoring chances around the crease. Even that may not be enough this weekend, as a familiar face will stand in their way.
Spartan goalie Jeff Lerg is 5-4-4 with a .913 save percentage in 13 career starts against the Wolverines. With the 2007 national title and six career NCAA tournament wins, Lerg is the most accomplished netminder Michigan will face this season.
While the coaching staff has seen the good and the bad from Lerg throughout the past three seasons, the Wolverines don’t plan to attack him differently from opposing goaltenders.
“You have to look at games where you’ve had success against him in the past,” Pearson said. “(You) try to incorporate some of things where there’s traffic in front of the net (and) turning cycles behind the net. Obviously, he’s a terrific goalie.”
Berenson will counter by giving sophomore Bryan Hogan his second Friday start in net this season. Berenson hopes the move will spark the Wolverines’ offense, which has scored 37 of its 47 goals this year with the Highland native between the pipes.