It’s his final year on the Michigan hockey team, and senior forward Evan Allen relishes his few remaining opportunities to play against rival Michigan State. With good reason, too. Throughout Allen’s first three years, the Michigan hockey team has earned 10 wins in 15 games and notched another victory late last month.
“It’s the biggest weekend of the year for Michigan hockey,” Allen said on Wednesday. “We just gotta come together and take pride in our defense, because goals are precious. We just gotta bear down and get going against Michigan State.”
Defense will be crucial to the Wolverines’ success against the Spartans this weekend because goals are a luxury for them this season — Michigan averages just 2.6 per game. The Wolverines also struggle to find shots, which Michigan coach Red Berenson attributes to a lack of opportunities with the puck in the opposition’s zone.
Last weekend in Minneapolis, the Wolverines showed some signs of offensive potential. They jumped out to an early lead Friday night and scored two late goals in the third period Saturday.
In practice this week, while showing his team game film from the weekend, Berenson pointed out certain defensive mistakes to his players.
“Our defense wasn’t gapping up on their forwards,” Berenson said. “They were giving their forwards too much room. We showed them a couple of clips where we did gap up on Saturday and then we had a good shift, we took over the play in their zone. When we didn’t gap up, we gave them our zone, and then we’re chasing them in our zone.”
It wasn’t solely defensive mistakes, however. Berenson explained that the Wolverines must improve their performance on special teams, an aspect of their game notably absent against No. 5 Minnesota. During that weekend’s series, Michigan earned just six power play chances — two on Friday and four on Saturday — and failed to score once. Defensively, the Wolverines’ penalty kill allowed two goals on 11 attempts, including a penalty shot.
Michigan State, though, contains significantly less star talent on its roster than the Gophers do. The Spartans sit last in the Big Ten standings, the only team behind Michigan. Michigan State nearly beat the Wolverines in the Great Lakes Invitational, overcoming a 4-1 third-period deficit, before ultimately losing 5-4 in overtime.
The Spartans have some impressive victories on their resume, defeating then-No. 5 North Dakota at Ralph Engelstad Arena on November 25th. That series alone gives Berenson cause for concern, even if Michigan State has yet to defeat a conference opponent.
“(Michigan State) is capable of beating anyone on a given night,” Berenson said. “They get it going, and we saw it against us. We had them down and they came back in the third period, and they easily could’ve won the game.
“It’s not about Michigan State. I know it’s a rivalry and both teams are going to play hard, but records don’t mean anything. I think their team’s better than their record and I think our team can be better than our record, but we gotta prove it.”
Sophomore forward Mason Appleton leads the Spartans offensively with nine goals and 19 points. His seven power play goals rank sixth nationally and second in the Big Ten. Appleton’s linemate, forward Joe Cox, will face off against the Wolverines for the fourth straight year. He is one of five players Allen has grown accustomed to seeing each time the two sides play.
“It’s our fourth year playing against them,” Allen said. “Right now, I’m on a line with (senior forward Alex) Kile and (senior forward Max) Shuart. Hopefully, we can take that into consideration against their young team. We can use us veterans, take it to them, because we know how Michigan State plays. We don’t like Michigan State and obviously, they don’t like us.”
Michigan has yet to win a conference game on the road this season, losing to then-No. 6 Penn State and Minnesota twice. Saturday night provides another road test for the Wolverines as they will travel to Munn Arena for the series finale.
For now, though, Berenson is focused on the first game Friday night because those nights have proven to be a challenge for Michigan this season. The Wolverines’ last series-opening victory occurred back in November when the Wolverines shut out then-No. 4 Boston University.
“Let’s worry about Friday’s game,” Berenson said. “It’s on the schedule, and we’re playing it here. Let’s get excited about it. … We’ve gotta be better on Fridays.”
If Michigan can keep the puck out of its zone, gap up on defense and take advantage of its shooting chances, it certainly will.