For the past 91 years, the Michigan hockey team has played for plenty of trophies against Michigan State.
But never before have the Wolverines had the chance to take home hardware quite like the one up for grabs against their in-state rival this weekend.
Now, with the Duel in the D on the horizon, Michigan (7-1-2-1 Big Ten, 16-3-4 overall) has the chance to claim possession of the newly crafted Iron D trophy.
The trophy — crafted by Erik and Israel Nordin — has a “made in Detroit feeling” according to Michigan coach Red Berenson.
And while Berenson praised the Nordin brothers’ work, he also emphasized that the in-state rivalry already has a life of its own.
“We went down to the factory where they made that trophy and watched a little bit of the production of it — how it’s made, where it’s made and why it was made,” Berenson said Jan. 25. “I think it’s good. It’s the beginning of another tradition between the two schools. We’ve had that game (at Joe Louis Arena) forever, but now you’ve got another thing to play for.
“It’s a goal, it’s a mini championship, if you would. It’s bragging rights. If the players had to play for a gum wrapper, they’re going to play hard. It’s important to them to win.”
The last meeting between the two teams came Jan. 8 and Jan. 9, when the Wolverines handed Michigan State back-to-back losses, 9-2 and 6-3.
Though the Spartans (2-8-0-0, 6-18-2) got on the board first in both matchups, they had no answer for the Michigan offense that is averaging a nation best five goals per game.
The 15-goal weekend was led, as usual, by the Wolverines’ first line. Freshman forward Kyle Connor and junior forwards Tyler Motte and JT Compher combined for seven goals in two games.
Michigan State now faces the task of stopping the trio that seems to be growing more dominant every time they take the ice together.
And that will be a tall task for the Spartans’ blueliners, who are tied for last in the Big Ten in team defense, allowing 4.30 goals per game. Part of that problem falls on the shoulders of goaltender Jake Hildebrand, whose .930 save percentage from last year has plummeted to .896.
Regardless of the approach Michigan State takes to stop the top line, the Wolverines won’t look to fix what isn’t broken, as Compher, Motte and Connor have combined for 75 points in 10 games.
“We’re just trying to focus on ourselves,” Compher said. “For my line, just keep playing hard, second efforts, two-way hockey. (We will be) sticking to what’s been working, which is moving the puck and get in the dirty areas.”
Michigan’s defensive unit, on the other hand, is coming off a weekend in which it allowed seven goals to then-No. 15 Penn State.
While that mark is unimpressive, the Wolverines have reason to be optimistic. Senior goaltender Steve Racine recorded a .918 save percentage on the weekend against the Nittany Lions, and sophomore defenseman Cutler Martin is now available after serving his two-game suspension.
Coming off the sweep against Penn State, Michigan has a solid footing entering the matchup — standing at No. 4 in the PairWise Rankings.
But that ranking comes with a bullseye, as the Wolverines have a lot more than a trophy to lose this weekend.
A loss to the Spartans, who are fifth in the Big Ten, could be catastrophic to Michigan’s position in the PairWise Rankings, which are used to determine the NCAA Tournament field and seeding.
Based on the last meeting between the two sides, these aren’t games the Wolverines should lose, but nothing is guaranteed.
“Obviously they compete really hard,” Connor said. “I think it’s just something with the rivalry. When you throw out the rankings, you throw out the record, it doesn’t really matter at this point. It’s going to be a hard game to play in.”