With every trip the Michigan hockey team takes to Madison, a slightly different challenge is presented.
The Kohl Center’s ice is 12 feet longer than the Yost Ice Arena’s rink. To combat the difference, the sixth-ranked Wolverines have been practicing at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube all week in preparation for the weekend series.
But Michigan coach Red Berenson doesn’t think it’ll be too much of a concern.
“You just have to get your bearings out there,” Berenson said. “If the rink is very narrow, you get used to that. If the rink is really wide, you get used to it.”
The Wolverines are coming off a split weekend against Michigan State that saw them lose 3-2 in overtime at Joe Louis Arena on Friday, before winning in East Lansing, 4-1, on Saturday.
In Friday’s game, Michigan’s potent offense, which averages 4.89 goals per game, mustered just two goals, both coming off the stick of junior forward Tyler Motte.
Saturday, scoring was a little more balanced, with goals coming from Motte, line mate junior forward JT Compher and senior forward Justin Selman.
“We have to play better,” Berenson said of Friday night’s game. “You’re not always going to get four or five goals, and the other part is we have to play better hockey. We’re getting goals from one line most nights. It was good to see the difference in Saturday’s game was we got two goals from Selman, and those were big goals for us.”
The Wolverines only gave up four goals last weekend in their best defensive effort of 2016, but Berenson knows Michigan can still improve, even with the offense playing the way that it is.
“If we’re playing well offensively, we’re not playing in our (defensive) zone,” Berenson said. “But we can’t rely on offense. We have to be a legitimate defensive team in addition to being an exceptional offensive team.”
Against the Badgers, the Wolverines will once again be without freshman forward Cooper Marody, who has mononucleosis and has not played since Jan. 17.
In his absence, Berenson has shifted around the lines, moving sophomore forward Dexter Dancs to senior forward Boo Nieves’ line and moving Selman to center a line with sophomore forward Tony Calderone and freshman forward Brendan Warren.
“I think Dexter’s got a good chance at helping Boo’s line,” Berenson said. “I really like what Selman’s doing with the other line.”
And in goal, senior Steve Racine will protect the net. Racine has played well of late, and last Friday’s loss to Michigan State was his first loss since mid-October.
But even in the loss, Racine had 38 saves, and kept Michigan in the game when it needed him the most.
“(Racine’s) playing well,” Berenson said. “He’s been a factor in all of our games. I could show you the Penn State games. There were turning points and saves he made when the score and the game could’ve gone either way, so even at Michigan State, that game could’ve gone either direction. He’s giving us a chance every night, and that’s what we want from our goalie.”
On the other side of the ice, Wisconsin comes into the game coming off a sweep of Alaska. However, Big Ten wins have been a little bit harder for them to come by. The Badgers have only one win in the conference.
Forwards Grant Besse and Luke Kunin lead Wisconsin in scoring. The duo was a big part of the reason the Badgers were able to put the Wolverines on the ropes twice at Yost Ice Arena back in December.
Wisconsin went up by at least a two-goal margin in both games, but Michigan was able to come back twice, once winning, 6-4, and once tying, 6-6.
With just nine games left before the Big Ten Tournament, the Wolverines have put themselves in a good position so far to contend for the Big Ten title and make it back to the NCAA Tournament after a three-year hiatus.
However, as evident by last weekend’s matchup against Michigan State, Michigan can’t take its foot off the gas pedal.
“We’ve always been a team that got better in the second half, and we’ve started to get better,” Berenson said. “But I still think we got to get better in the upcoming games. We have five tough conference road games we’ve got to take advantage of. If we do that, we’ll be ready.”