Going into this weekend’s home-and-home series against Michigan State the No. 14 Michigan hockey team has become all too familiar with bittersweet weekends.
The Wolverines are 6-5-2 overall and have two wins, two losses and two ties in Big Ten play. To say that the season has been up and down to this point is an understatement. Seemingly, every good Michigan win, like its 6-5, come-from-behind victory at No. 5 Penn State or its third-period domination in a 2-1 win over No. 8 Notre Dame, is paired with a loss that slows that momentum.
That has happened in five of the Wolverines’ six series so far — and in four of those five, Michigan started with a win or extra Big Ten point before having to settle for a split.
“We need to come out better on Saturdays,” said junior forward Nick Pastujov. “We’ve won a bunch of times on Friday nights and we haven’t been able to close on Saturday.
“Overtime loss, shootout loss, we need to know how to play that second game and be better in the second game than we have in the first game. I think we get a little too confident and too comfortable, and the other team rebounds harder than us.”
Michigan State might be just the right team for the Wolverines to buck that trend. The Spartans are 5-7 overall and 1-3 in Big Ten play. They have a negative goal differential (-0.5), allow their opponents a .113 shot percentage to their own .105 and possess a paltry .188 power-play percentage. In what has been a chippy rivalry in the past, Michigan has a clear advantage, especially on the power play.
And while Michigan State has had more down moments than not this season, players like forward Taro Hirose make the Spartans dangerous. Though they just came out of a six-game losing streak, Michigan State has quality wins at Minnesota and a road sweep of No. 16 Cornell to its name too.
“I think they’re a little inconsistent right now,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “They’re a program trying to find their way with a new coach. But they can beat anybody on any given night.”
Rivalries are rivalries for a reason, though. While the Wolverines did go 3-1-1 against a Spartan team that finished last in the Big Ten last season, the one loss was a 5-0 drubbing in East Lansing. To get off on the right foot in the series, Michigan obviously can’t — and shouldn’t — turn in a defensive performance like that, its 7-6 overtime loss to Penn State, or its 6-2 thumping at the hands of Notre Dame.
Still, Hirose perhaps presents the biggest roadblock to that. Hirose is second in the country in assists, and boasts a plus-minus of plus-9. For reference, freshman defender Nick Blankenburg leads Michigan at plus-4.
“You have to force (Hirose) to play without the puck,” Pearson said. “And then they’re not as good. When they have it they really are, and you have to take their time and space away. That’s easier said than done, but whatever line we have out there we have to know who’s out there against us.”
For as much as Michigan has been Jekyll-and-Hyde this season, the Spartans arguably have higher highs and lower lows than any team the Wolverines have seen yet. If Michigan can take care of business, it might just put it on a path to contention.