A season ago, the Michigan hockey team played Wisconsin five times — four times in the regular season and once in the Big Ten Tournament.
The Wolverines triumphed over the Badgers in all five games, with an average margin of victory of 3.8 goals.
But a fresh season and a new crop of freshmen breathed new life into Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves’ team. His squad will be ready to break the losing streak when No. 12 Michigan takes on the Badgers at Yost Ice Arena this weekend in both teams’ Big Ten opener.
“I know that they’re coming out hard,” said freshman forward Cooper Marody. “It adds something to be the first Big Ten game, and it’s going to be tougher, and there’s more at stake. We’ve got to come out hot, have a good start and do what we do well.”
Most notably, forward Luke Kunin and goaltender Matt Jurusik have given Badgers’ fans the hope that last season, when Wisconsin won just four games, will not repeat itself.
Kunin, who played on the United States National Development Team alongside many Wolverines, is currently second on the Badgers’ stat sheet with nine points and will look to get the Badgers on the board early.
Jurusik, on the other hand, didn’t come in as highly touted, and wasn’t expected to play much this season. But in the third game of the season at No. 1 Boston College, Jurusik replaced goaltender Adam Miller after Miller allowed two goals in four minutes.
Jurusik hasn’t looked back, playing every minute since the change in net in Chestnut Hill, Mass.
And since that game, the Badgers have steadily improved. Since starting out the season without a win in six games, the Badgers have gone 3-1-2 and come to Ann Arbor with an impressive win at then-No. 1 North Dakota and a tie against No. 9 Denver.
“They’re much better than their record,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “They’re much closer to a typical Wisconsin team. They play hard, they play physical, and they play with intensity. They’re hard to play against, they play good systems and they’ll be stingy defensively.”
Added freshman forward Cooper Marody: “We know they’re going to be a good team, and they have the ability to make plays so we have to play well.”
On the other side of the ice, Michigan comes into the Big Ten opener after an uneven weekend against Dartmouth that saw it score a 7-0 victory on Friday before tying the same Big Green team, 1-1, on Saturday.
“In hockey, the teams are pretty even no matter what,” Marody said. “At the level that we’re at, any team can beat any team on any night, and the puck just wasn’t finding the back of the net like it was in the first game. Sometimes that happens, so we need to find other ways to score.”
But Marody pointed out one big positive from the weekend, which was that the Wolverines allowed only one goal in two games.
A big part of that was senior goaltender Steve Racine, who finished the weekend with 38 saves. But 14 minutes into Saturday’s game, Racine suffered a lower-body injury and junior goaltender Zach Nagelvoort came off the bench to take his place.
Nagelvoort played well, finishing the game with 30 saves, and he will be relied on again this week with Racine still injured.
But if the Michigan’s power play clicks as it has recently, Nagelvoort may not be called upon as often.
The man-up unit has scored nine goals in its last five games and will be one of the Wolverines’ keys to success this weekend.
“We’ve established a little rhythm as to where each player is going to be,” Marody said. “(The power play) flows better now.”
With the Big Ten teams not performing as well in the non-conference portion schedule as many hoped, just a couple losses could be devastating for their NCAA Tournament hopes.
Michigan’s goal is to avoid that.
“(This weekend’s games) are just part of the puzzle,” Berenson said. “This whole RPI thing is a puzzle. All we can do is win as many games as we can, regardless of what other teams have done and regardless of the nonconference schedule.”