Following a three-game losing streak, the Michigan hockey team arrived at Lake Superior State last weekend with a desperate attitude, agitated by its inability to put together a win.
But after splitting with the Lakers — and not feeling as bad knowing their previous opponents defeated the top-two teams in the conference — the Wolverines are in high spirits. Michigan will travel to Kalamazoo this weekend for a two-game set with No. 9 Western Michigan (10-4-2-1 CCHA, 14-6-4 overall), which is tied for first in CCHA.
“I think our mentality really changed going into Lake State,” said freshman forward Boo Nieves. “We definitely took a step in the right direction, and our team mentality is definitely going in the right place.”
Added Michigan coach Red Berenson: “I think there’s a new sense of energy on the whole team. We can’t keep relying on last week or the week before last, but I think you’re as good as your last game, and our team feels like we are starting to play better.”
Despite their ninth-place ranking in the conference, the Wolverines’ (5-11-2-2, 8-14-2l) demeanor has changed for the better.
Their attitude alone won’t be enough, though, as the Broncos boast the third-best defense in the NCAA, allowing just 1.88 goals per game. Sophomore goaltender Frank Slubowski, ranked in the nation’s top 10 with a .920 save percentage, is part of the reason behind Western Michigan’s success.
Michigan, on the other hand, ranks 54th out of 59 teams in goals against nationally, allowing 3.5 per game as it struggles to find a consistent netminder. Junior goaltender Adam Janecyk is expected to start again, even after giving up seven goals in two games against the Lakers.
“It doesn’t matter who we’re playing — it’s a huge series for us,” Berenson said. “We know there’s only 10 games left, and we know we’re going to have to do our work on the road.”
Janecyk will be tested by the Broncos’ leading goal-scorer Dane Walters, who has 11 on the season. Walters has been far and away Western Michigan’s go-to leader, but Janecyk has had success against the Broncos in the past. His first start of the season came in a 2-0 victory on Dec. 15 against the Broncos, when he recorded 25 saves in his first-career shutout.
“We expect to play hard and win,” said Western Michigan coach Andy Murray. “I don’t care whether it’s the Detroit Red Wings coming into this weekend, our responsibility is to defend our ice here.”
Michigan will be riding it’s own offensive hot streak, coming from a slew of players who haven’t consistently produced in the past. Junior forward Luke Moffatt led the Wolverines in goals over the weekend with two in Friday’s game, despite being shut down Saturday.
Although he didn’t record a point, sophomore forward Alex Guptill will be called upon to continue taking cracks at the net after leading the team in shots against Lake Superior State.
The power-play unit, ranked 49th out of 59 teams nationally with 13 goals on 100 chances, has also bounced back over the weekend, under freshman defenseman Jacob Trouba’s leadership. The Winnipeg Jets draft pick has recorded five of his eight goals on the season on the power play, and continues to reap the benefits of the return of junior defenseman Jon Merrill.
Western Michigan ranks 19th on the power play, scoring on 24 of 123 chances while sitting at 11th place in the NCAA in penalty kills. The Broncos have killed off an impressive 84 out of 97 chances this season.
The Broncos are coming off of a series split with Bowling Green. Western Michigan has won three of its last four meetings with Michigan, including last year’s CCHA championship.
“It’ll be tough,” Nieves said. “Strategy can only get you so far. It comes down to will, determination and coming together as a team to figure it out.”