Monday afternoon, the Michigan hockey team held a meeting to discuss its performance in its most recent series against No. 3 Penn State, where the Wolverines were swept by a combined score of 11-2. Heading into the upcoming weekend with another high-scoring team on the schedule in Wisconsin, Michigan coach Red Berenson urged his team to move forward.
“At some point we’ve gotta put it behind us,” Berenson said. “After Monday, it was more about this week than last week. You can’t drag yourself through the mud for a whole week.”
Added sophomore defenseman Nicholas Boka: “We need to be better. That (performance) is not acceptable here at Michigan. We know it and our coaches know it. (The coaches) just said what we put in this week in practice is gonna show during the games this weekend, so they said, ‘let’s just start preparing now.’ ”
Like the Nittany Lions, the Badgers rank in the top 20 nationally in scoring, averaging 3.36 goals per game, nearly a whole goal more than the Wolverines. Forward Luke Kunin anchors Wisconsin’s offensive attack, leading the Badgers with nine goals. Two years ago, Boka and Kunin played with each other as members of the USNTDP. As the team’s captain, Kunin scored 27 times, which was fourth best on the team.
In their second season apart, the two former teammates-turned-rivals have maintained their close relationship. And Boka says he uses his knowledge of Kunin’s playing style to his advantage.
“He’s my best friend,” Boka said. “It’s been different, playing against each other. You’re friends off the ice, but when it comes time to play against each other, you don’t think twice on the ice.
I know his tendencies and what he likes to do and whether that’s on the power play or just simple things. But I think when it comes down to it, we gotta be worried about the whole team, not just one player.”
Boka and Kunin aren’t the only players from the Wolverines and the Badgers who have played together on the USNTDP. Last season, five Michigan players along with Wisconsin defenseman James Greenway and center Trent Frederic all were teammates on the USNTDP as well.
For Boka though, the game also represents a chance to face-off against his former coach on the USNTDP, Don Granato, who serves as assistant coach under his brother Tony in Madison. Like with Kunin, Boka still remains in touch with Don despite their intra-conference rivalry.
“He’s a great guy to have if I have any questions or ways I can improve my game,” Boka said. “He’s definitely been a big help to my career.”
In their first season at Wisconsin, the Granato brothers have turned a team that won just eight games all last year into a group that could make a run for the conference title. In their non-conference schedule, the Badgers faced four ranked teams and earned two victories, nearly equalling last season’s total of three.
The upcoming matchup will have a different vibe for the Wolverines, too. In their four games against Wisconsin last year, Michigan scored 20 goals and swept the Badgers in both series. In fact, Wisconsin hasn’t defeated the Wolverines in Ann Arbor since November 26, 2005.
This year’s matchup could be a bit different, though. Michigan isn’t the high-scoring team it used to be, and Wisconsin ranks fourth in percentage of shots taken vs. opponent, with a 57.9 rate. The Wolverines’ blue-line certainly wants to avoid a repeat of last weekend, when Michigan allowed a combined 106 shots in the two games.
“We definitely have to help out our goalies,” Boka said. “Friday night against Penn State, I think we gave up over 40 shots, and that’s just not the way to win games, and that can’t happen moving forward. I think as a whole D corps, we gotta step it up and start playing for those guys and give them the best chance to win games for us.
“We definitely want to focus on limiting Grade A opportunities, the chances they get close to our net. You can’t give up 55 shots and expect our goalie to make a save on every single one.”
Berenson, too, recognizes the Badgers’ marked improvement from last season, as well as the challenges his Wolverines face, but he is also eager for the upcoming matchup.
“They’ve got a new coaching staff, and they’re as good as it gets,” Berenson said. “They’ve inherited a pretty darn talented team, and some really good young players. Their power play is a good example. They have one of the best power plays in the country, and right now, they’re getting it done. I’m sure they want to improve, but they’re off to a pretty good start. They’ve played good teams, and they’ve done well.
“We’ve got a lot of respect for what they’ve done and where they’ve coached. I think it’ll be a good matchup this weekend, they’ll be excited and we’ll be excited.”