- Patrick Barron/Daily
By Greg Garno, Daily Sports Writer
Published February 7, 2013
If the Michigan hockey team plans to make a late push for CCHA playoff positioning, facing No. 11 Notre Dame couldn’t come at a worse time, right?
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Since Jan. 8, the Wolverines have won as many games, three, as the Fighting Irish. Including losses to CCHA bottom dwellers Michigan State, Bowling Green State, and losses to Alaska and Ohio State, Notre Dame is quickly dropping in the CCHA standings. The statistic is even more unimaginable when you consider that Notre Dame lost just four games in the first three months of the season.
After a recent sweep of rival Michigan State, Michigan will enter South Bend with emotions running high for another weekend series with a rival. Still, a sweep this weekend would move the Wolverines no more than one spot up — from eighth to seventh — in the CCHA standings.
“Any time we play Michigan, it’s always intense,” Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson told The Notre Dame Observer. “I don’t need to do much on my end to get them motivated or physically engaged — that will happen naturally.”
Michigan’s underclassmen stepped up as catalysts in last weekend’s sweep of the Spartans and will be important to any hopes it has of improving its playoff position.
Freshman forward Boo Nieves stood out last weekend, tallying three goals and two assists, but his fellow linemate’s performance was equally as valuable. Sophomore forward Phil Di Giuseppe was on the giving end of the Wolverines’ offensive production, finishing with five assists.
Di Giuseppe and his teammates recorded three or more goals for the first time since Jan. 18 against Lake Superior State. With just six regular-season games left, and four of them on the road, their production will be all the more important.
“I think at this point, we have to keep it going,” Nieves said. “ We don’t have many more games left. We don’t have much more time to change much. So I think we just have to keep the momentum that we’ve gained from last week and keep it going.”
While Michigan coach Red Berenson has been pleased with the play of his underclassmen, he hasn’t been impressed with the performance from his upperclassmen. Last weekend was considered a step in the right direction for a group that sang ‘The Victors’ after sweeping a series for the first time this year, and it will take another focused weekend if it hopes to replicate the results.
“I think everybody was dialed in last weekend, and finally it’s taken us more than half a year to get on the right page as a team,” Berenson said. “We’re no good if one or two players aren’t dialed in.”
The focus will be on the Fighting Irish offense, the best in the conference, as it skates against the conference’s worst defense. Notre Dame is the only team in the CCHA to score more than three goals per game (3.10), while the Wolverines are the only team that allows more than three per game (3.41).
Michigan’s defense hasn’t held an opponent to fewer than three goals since allowing two to the Spartans on Dec. 30.
The defense should see a boost with the return of junior defenseman Mac Bennett, who began practicing on Tuesday after a Jan. 8 injury. Bennett’s return could mean the re-pairing of freshman defenseman Jacob Trouba and junior defenseman Jon Merrill, who are arguably the team’s two best defensemen.
Regardless of who is paired together, the defense will be called on to help its young goaltender, freshman Jared Rutledge. The Chicago native pleased his coach after making his first starts since Nov. 10, stopping a combined 47 shots over the weekend.
Rutledge, who has played in a three-way goalie competition for much of the season, will likely once again start in South Bend.
“I can’t tell you that he’s going to go on a roll, but if he does, he’ll play,” Berenson said. “If our team wins, and he plays well, then that’s what we are looking for.
“I don’t think he’s at the top of his game yet, but these games will help him.”
Rutledge can expect to see a surging Anders Lee coming at him frequently this weekend. Lee leads the Fighting Irish with 14 goals this season, good for first among CCHA goal scorers.
Notre Dame will also look to its defense, which ranks seventh in the NCAA in goals allowed with 2.18 per game. Its performance will also be important as it tries to protect whichever goaltender — Mike Johnson or Steven Summerhays — sits between the pipes. Summerhays was recently pulled in favor of Johnson after giving up five goals in the first two periods of Friday night’s game against the Buckeyes.
“They’re big, they’re strong and they play physical,” said Michigan assistant coach Billy Powers of Notre Dame. “At this time of the year, if you’re playing well … you’re going to see more teams that are playing more physical.
“I would expect that we’ll see (that physicality) from Notre Dame, but more importantly, you’ll see it from us too.”