With the non-conference slate of the No. 5 Michigan hockey team’s schedule concluded, the Wolverines can now focus on the next stretch of Big Ten play. While they previously faced the weight of a single result causing Pairwise comparisons to shake out against entire conferences, each individual game is now just that — one game.
Sitting at sixth place in the Big Ten — with two games in hand — Michigan just needs to win a few conference games. With six out of seven teams in the conference ranked, though, that’s easier said than done.
But the one in-conference rival that isn’t ranked is Wisconsin, the Wolverines’ opponent this upcoming weekend.
Thus far, the Badgers have nosedived to a 0-6 start to conference play, getting swept by No. 6 Penn State, No. 13 Michigan State and No. 17 Ohio State. On paper, they’re the worst team in the conference by a sizable margin, and it’s shown in their early failures.
But in a loaded conference, even the worst team still poses a formidable challenge. Though it came against lower-quality competition relative to the Big Ten, Wisconsin is riding a four-game win streak, carrying momentum into this weekend’s clash with Michigan.
“There are no easy games in the Big Ten,” Michigan assistant coach Rob Rassey said Tuesday. “Every night, you’re gonna face a quality opponent with a good coach and good players and usually a good environment. It’s definitely challenging.”
The Badgers also boast the second-highest faceoff win percentage in the country — an area that the Wolverines struggle in, ranked just 44th. If Wisconsin can control the faceoff circle as that disparity indicates it will, it can help sustain offensive pressure and prevent Michigan from spending too much time on prolonged attacks.
But faceoffs are essentially the only measurable aspect of the game in which the Badgers have outperformed the Wolverines thus far. Michigan might struggle in the faceoff circle, but if it plays to its identity, it should be able to overcome that.
Meanwhile, due to an illness-ravaged few weeks which forced stars off the ice and backups onto it, the Wolverines haven’t yet seen the results in conference play they desire. As they continue to put that behind them, this weekend offers another fresh start.
“We’re looking forward to getting back out on the road and another good Big Ten weekend,” Rassey said. “We’re looking forward to getting out there and getting after it.”
Getting back out on the road with almost the entire roster healthy once again, Michigan has the chance to right the ship.
And to compete for a conference title, Michigan needs to do so against Wisconsin. Just as the Nittany Lions, Buckeyes and Spartans swept the Badgers, the Wolverines should follow suit. There may not be a bad team in the Big Ten, but there is a clear bottom-feeder this season, and Michigan needs to capitalize when it faces them.
If they can pull it off, the Wolverines will swing right back into the heat of the conference race.
By sweeping Wisconsin, Michigan can move up to fifth place in the Big Ten, with the potential to slide into fourth depending on how Ohio State fares this weekend. And with the top four teams in the conference all playing each other, they can’t all keep pace with the six points the Wolverines earn from a sweep.
Most importantly, though, Michigan can begin to close the gap to the top four, all while maintaining the two games it has in hand. If the Wolverines can produce similar results against Michigan State the following weekend, they’ll put themselves in position to keep climbing throughout the second half of the season.
As a standalone series, this weekend won’t be the biggest for Michigan. But right now, the Wolverines just need to pick up points in the conference standings, and it starts with beating the Badgers.