Last season, the Michigan hockey team posted a winning record (3-1-1) against in-state rival Michigan State. But the trio of wins and ultimate bragging rights didn’t come easily to the Wolverines.
Of the five games they played against the Spartans, including three overtime periods and a shootout, none finished with more than a one-goal differential.
Though Michigan notched 15 goals and 26 assists in the season series, it couldn’t escape the pressure of the Michigan State power play. On multiple occasions, the Wolverines took a lead into the third period before penalties struck in untimely ways.
In their first meeting last year, Michigan took its comfortable 4-1 lead into the final frame, which was just barely enough to seal a 4-3 win after the Spartans’ power play registered back-to-back goals.
But the Wolverines couldn’t stave off Michigan State the next night. Knotted at two entering the last period, Michigan netted a late goal before then-junior forward Kevin Lynch was sent to the box for holding. The Spartans answered with the game-tying goal before a scoreless overtime period and shootout victory.
Feb. 10 also seemed familiar, as the then-No. 4 Michigan carried a narrow 2-1 lead into the third period. Boarding and tripping penalties allowed the Spartans a pair of goals in the opening five minutes of the stanza en route to Michigan’s 3-2 loss.
“I remember those,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “There were some poor penalties called, there were some poor goals scored, there was some breaks that went against us and then there were some lapses on our part.”
The way last season’s games unfolded, headlined by special teams, might just repeat itself this weekend as the 11th-ranked Wolverines play Michigan State at home tonight and at East Lansing on Saturday.
Berenson used this week’s practice to improve the Michigan power play, which will be key in taking advantage of Michigan State’s CCHA-high 125 minutes of penalties.
“I think it will be a weekend of mistakes,” Berenson said. “Whatever team can force the other team to make the most mistakes could be costly.”
Though they often find themselves short-handed, the Spartans have been consistent in killing penalties (85.7 percent) and brilliant on the power play (25.7 percent). Michigan State went 4-for-7 in its last game against Bowling Green to split the series and even its record at .500.
Berenson compared the two teams on the “ups and downs” since both have yet to collect a series win this season. The Wolverines have lost depth on defense and special teams as of late. They entered conference play with a perfect record on the penalty kill, but they have since dropped, surrendering three man-advantage goals last weekend at the hands of Northern Michigan.
Michigan remains atop the CCHA, scoring 4.43 goals per game, but its defense ranks at the bottom, allowing an average of 3.43 goals.
“I think you can have the best of both worlds,” Berenson said. “I think you can be number one offensively and you can also be number one defensively. … The name of the game is to score goals, but right now we’re a .500 team and the reason we’re a .500 team is because of too many goals against.”
The blue line hasn’t been able stifle its opponents due to a slew of injuries, leaving Berenson to rotate through the roster just to fill the lineup. Along with the bruised defensive corps is the unsettled goalie situation between freshmen netminders Jared Rutledge and Steve Racine.
Racine let eight combined goals sneak between the posts against the Wildcats last weekend, which might be why Berenson named Rutledge the starter in the series opener.
Fortunately for the Wolverines, the offense — led by senior captain A.J. Treais — has compensated for the lack of defensive depth. The preseason all-CCHA honorable mention has notched six goals and an assist in his 15 career games against the Spartans.
“Normally, there’s a little more urgency and a sense of importance,” Berenson said. “There’s a little more buzz around the games, before the games, the fans, especially when you’re playing at home. … We belong in this game. We’re ready for this game.”