The No. 6 Michigan hockey team takes a break from Big Ten play to take on in-state rival Ferris State on Friday night at Yost Ice Arena.

The unusual disruption in conference play will be a rare opportunity to watch the Wolverines play a stout defensive opponent. The Bulldogs have posted a respectable 2.5 goals-against average this season — good enough for 20th in the NCAA — but have been especially impressive in the second half. Since Jan. 1, they have lowered that mark to 1.7. In contrast, Michigan’s GAA of 3.0 ranks in the bottom half of Division I hockey.

The game is a throwback to the CCHA era for the Wolverines in terms of opposition — Ferris State was a fellow member — and playing style. The Bulldogs have given Michigan (9-2-3 Big Ten, 18-4-5 overall) fits since the dissolution of the conference three years ago, compiling two wins and a tie in three games.

“Ferris State has been good about reaching out to Michigan,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “When the Big Ten formed three years ago, instead of us having to schedule four non-conference games, we have to schedule 14. Why not play some of the teams from the CCHA that still want to play us?”

This year, Ferris State (12-8-4 WCHA, 14-10-6) has been held together by standout freshman goaltender Darren Smith. Since assuming the starting role, Smith has provided a solid foundation for a team that has been otherwise tumultuous. His .932 save percentage is the second best among freshmen, and the best when limiting that group to netminders who logged over 1000 minutes.

“They can skate and they can play, but their DNA has been their defense,” Berenson said.

Wolverine fans will also be happy to see freshman forward Cooper Marody return to the ice after a prolonged absence from illness. Berenson plans to play Marody alongside senior forward Justin Selman and freshman forward Brendan Warren.

“(Cooper) feels good,” Berenson said. “He wants to play and he’s had a few practices now. It’s going to take him a little while to get caught up in terms of quickness and conditioning, but that’s why you have to play.”

Marody’s return, and a potential shakeup on defense, will result in a lineup shuffle. Sophomore forward Tony Calderone is out, while sophomore defender Cutler Martin took reps at forward in practice. He would give Michigan a bigger physical presence on offense while sophomore defender Sam Piazza fills the void on defense.

As senior goaltender Steve Racine’s play has improved, much of the spotlight has been focused on the shaky defensive unit. Michigan’s coaching staff has reiterated the emphasis on bringing down the goals-against average before the postseason, but one stat supporting the Wolverines’ case as contenders is goal margin. Michigan’s goal margin per game mark of 1.78 is fourth in the nation.

When Ferris arrives with its hard-nosed style Friday night, it should offer the best chance yet to evaluate just how far the Wolverines have come on the defensive end.

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