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Hockey is back. At least, it will be soon. 

Thirty days removed from its last game, the Michigan hockey team will return to Yost Ice Arena on Friday, Jan. 8 for the first game of a weekend home-and-home series against Michigan State. After opening the season with four wins, the Wolverines lost five of their next six games — including a pair of losses against top-ranked Minnesota — leading up to the holiday break. They hope to get back on track against the 4-4-2 Spartans on Friday.

Crucially, Michigan will return five players — freshman forwards Matty Beniers, Thomas Bordeleau and Brendan Brisson, sophomore forward Johnny Beecher and sophomore defenseman Cam York — who missed the last two games for U.S. World Juniors training camp (Bordeleau and Beecher did not participate in the tournament because of a positive COVID-19 test). They’ll look to provide a spark for an offense that scored just one goal in its two losses against the Gophers.

To find that spark, the Wolverines will have to get past a Michigan State team that relies heavily on its defense. The Spartans have forfeited an average of just two goals in their first ten games — second-best in the Big Ten and tied for sixth in the country. 

“They play defense first (and) hang back,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “You have to work through their people, and you have to grind, and we have to embrace the grind and love the grind.”

If they want to disrupt Michigan State’s defensive approach, the Wolverines will have to avoid the mistakes they made in November against Notre Dame’s neutral-zone trap. That means staying patient, not taking risks in the neutral zone and accepting that they won’t always be able to carry it over the blue line. 

If Michigan gets frustrated early on, that could result in a repeat of the series against the Fighting Irish — meaning few goals, lots of turnovers and odd-man rushes going the other way. 

“We’re not gonna get much on the rush,” Pearson said. “Just the way they play the game, we’re not gonna get two-on-ones, three-on-twos. We’re gonna have to get pucks behind them and go get it.”

Still, the Wolverines likely won’t need to do much on offense to find success this weekend. The Spartans average just 2.1 goals per game, tied with Ohio State for worst in the Big Ten though they scored five in a win over Penn State on Monday. That’s at least partially a product of their defensive style of play, but Michigan should be able to make Michigan State uncomfortable if it can get on the board early. 

Of course, things change if one side can’t stay out of the box, something that neither team has been able to do this season. The weekend series will feature the two most penalized teams in the Big Ten — the Spartans average 12.1 penalty minutes per game, while the Wolverines average 11.1. 

Penalties have been deadly in several of Michigan’s recent losses, so they could become a game-changer once again against Michigan State. Some of that falls on inconsistent officiating, but that’s something that generally evens out over time. At a certain point, the Wolverines will have to find a way to stay out of the box, or they’ll continue to struggle against the Spartans and beyond. 

“Penalties have been a real key in all three of our last games,” Pearson said. “The timing of the penalties, how they’re called, et cetera, but that is a concern. … We’re gonna have to figure out a way to just try to stay out of the penalty box, but I just hoped for more consistent refereeing.”

The weekend series should be an emotional battle between two fierce rivals trying to find their rhythm in the second half. For Michigan, a sweep could help them get back on track in a season that, thus far, has fallen a bit short of expectations.

After this weekend, the Wolverines will have 16 games left to flip that script.