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What to Watch for: Michigan State

Allison Farrand/Daily
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By Greg Garno, Daily Sports Editor
Published March 6, 2014

The Michigan hockey team will take on Michigan State in a home-and-home series after taking four of six points against the Buckeyes.

The Wolverines will be without senior defenseman Mac Bennett once again this weekend after he suffered an upper-body injury against Penn State on Feb. 22.

But Michigan will have a pair of forwards return: junior Andrew Sinelli and freshman Tyler Motte. The pair sat out of Sunday’s game in Columbus.

The Wolverines swept an earlier series between the two teams, winning 2-1 at Joe Louis Arena and 5-2 in East Lansing. The Daily breaks down what to watch for this weekend’s series:

Can the Wolverines avoid a letdown in the Big Ten?

With just four games remaining, the Michigan hockey team has no breathing room.

If it wants to make the NCAA Tournament after missing for the first time in over 20 years last season, it needs nothing short of a sweep.

With the Big Ten’s fifth-place team coming to town — Michigan State (3-7-6-4 Big Ten, 9-15-7 overall) — those points should be easier to come by. But after it split four games with Penn State, who sits at the bottom of the conference, the Wolverines (8-6-2-1, 16-10-4) aren’t exactly a surefire bet to win.

“We need to bring our ‘A’ game this weekend,” said sophomore forward Andrew Copp to the Athletic Department.

Combine that with a rivalry week, and Michigan could put itself in a challenging spot against Minnesota next weekend. The Wolverines sit in third place in the Big Ten, four points behind Wisconsin and a bye in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament later in March.

“Whether it’s the first weekend of the season or the last weekend, Michigan State is a huge rivalry in any sport,” Sinelli said to the Athletic Department.

Added Michigan coach Red Berenson: “When you’re playing the Green and White, you know it’s going to bring out the best in both teams.”

Will one goaltender emerge as the starter?

Berenson continues to split time between goaltenders, neither of whom has stood out above the other.

Sophomore Steve Racine and freshman Zach Nagelvoort have split the last two series. In that time, Nagelvoort has allowed seven goals compared to Racine’s six.

But the difference has been in the Wolverines record in that time. Racine has won both games while Nagelvoort has yet to find a win since Feb. 7.

The competition is still up in the air, and Berenson has not indicated that one will start over the other. But if one can outshine the other, it could help establish some consistency on a team that has lacked it since conference play began.

Can the success of the power play carry over?

The Wolverines season has often reflected how well the power play performs. The most recent series against Ohio State is a prime example.

On Friday, Michigan finished 0-for-6 with an extra man, in which it failed to bury quality chances in a shootout loss. But on Sunday, the Wolverines scored three power-play goals en route to a 4-3 victory.

Michigan utilized a 1-3-1 formation on the power play, which kept three forwards across the faceoff circles, one near the blue line and one at the net. The move from a traditional umbrella formation — where three players fan out above the circles and two forwards situate near the crease — created better scoring chances.

With Bennett out for the weekend, the Wolverines will continue to use four and sometimes five forwards on the power play, which should be suited best by the 1-3-1.

The Spartans don’t give up many penalties — just 10 penalty minutes a game, good for the best in the nation. So Michigan will have to capitalize on a penalty kill that sits 48th in the nation.

Is the defense capable of repeating its performance minus Bennett?

Thanks to injuries and suspensions, the Wolverines have played with a new defensive combination in the past five games.

Freshman defenseman Kevin Lohan has returned from a knee injury and has played admirably in his last four games. Fellow freshman Michael Downing returned from a one-game suspension two weeks ago, only to return to his hard-hitting ways.

But the supporting cast has been somewhat perplexing, as junior Brennan Serville and freshman Nolan de Jong have struggled to eliminate turnovers while senior defenseman Kevin Clare is playing some of his best hockey as of late.

But in the past three without its captain, Bennett, Michigan has gone on to allow just over two goals a game.
With a Spartan offense that sits in the 54th in the nation out of 59 teams — averaging 2.10 goals per game — the Wolverines defense should be able to manage another weekend.