When the Big Ten preseason polls were released at the beginning of the season, the No. 8 Michigan hockey team sat atop the rankings.
Just two spots down in third place was Michigan State, led by the 2015 Big Ten Player of the Year in goaltender Jake Hildebrand.
With half the season gone and two weeks of Big Ten play completed, the Wolverines (2-1-1 Big Ten, 11-3-3 overall) have lived up to their expectations, dropping just four points out of 12 in their first four games and winning the Great Lake Invitational.
The Spartans (1-3-0, 5-13-2), on the other hand, have not.
Their season, filled with promise at the beginning, has unraveled, and the Spartans concluded 2015 with two heartbreaking overtime losses in the GLI.
Hildebrand has had little support from the players in front of him, especially the defense, which was one of Michigan State’s strengths coming into the season. A 2015 first-team All-American and Mike Richter Award finalist, Hildebrand has a save percentage of just .903 on the season.
In front of Hildebrand, forward Michael Ferrantino and Mackenzie MacEachern led the team with 16 and 15 points, respectively. Freshman defenseman Zach Osburn and freshman forward Mason Appleton have impressed in their first season in East Lansing, but the duo has not been enough to turn around the Spartans’ dismal season.
Despite Michigan State’s performance, Michigan-Michigan State has always been a big rivalry, and this year is no different.
“No matter where (the Spartans) are in the Pairwise Rankings, I think that it’s such an old rivalry that it’ll be a tough game no matter what,” said sophomore defenseman Cutler Martin. “Whatever team that comes out to play is the team that will come out on top.”
With a majority of players on both teams hailing from Michigan, there will be familiarity between the two teams. But with six crucial points on the line, the players have made it clear that the friendliness stops as soon as the puck is dropped.
“When the game starts, it’s all business,” Martin, an East Lansing native, said. “They’re not my friends anymore, but I’m sure in the summer time, there are bragging rights for who takes care of business.”
Added junior forward Tyler Motte: “It’s a rivalry. Maybe you give someone you know a bump after the whistle to say ‘How’s it going,’ but between the whistle, it’s game on, especially against those guys.”
For the Wolverines, confidence has been high all season, and the GLI championship was a cherry on top of a solid first half to the season.
While Michigan has prided itself on its offensive firepower all season, it was the depth of the defense that shined through during the GLI.
Missing in action were sophomore Zach Werenski, who was busy captaining the U.S. Junior team at the World Championships; junior Michael Downing, who was suspended from the GLI after a dangerous hit against Minnesota; and senior Kevin Lohan, who has been injured since November. Yet, the Wolverines let in just four goals in two games.
In the trio’s absence, sophomore defenseman Sam Piazza was given a big opportunity. And he delivered, earning a goal and three assists, as well as All-Tournament honors.
“It was different because it wasn’t the usual lineup, but I think we are very deep on defense,” Martin said. “It was good second-effort hockey. Everyone blocked shots.”
But no one was more impressive at the GLI than freshman forward Kyle Connor, who many hockey experts thought should’ve been playing in Finland with Werenski.
Connor was named tournament MVP after registering a goal and two assists, and capped off a month that saw him score 13 points in six games en route to winning the Hockey Commissioners’ Association National Rookie of the Month for December.
Michigan will go into the back end of its season on track to make it back to the NCAA Tournament, a place the Wolverines have not been in three years.
But to get there, they will need to continue to play well. And it all starts Friday in East Lansing.