The ‘Iron D’ trophy is currently sitting somewhere in East Lansing.
After allowing a goal in overtime Friday night, the No. 5 Michigan hockey team was left as the loser of the Duel in the D at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, while Michigan State claimed hardware to make its upset victory even sweeter.
The Wolverines recovered to defeat the Spartans, 4-1, at Munn Ice Arena on Saturday, but realistically, Friday wasn’t a game they were supposed to lose.
Michigan State entered the matchup with just two wins in the Big Ten and averaging 4.30 goals against per game. Michigan, on the other hand, hadn’t lost since Dec. 12 and was leading the nation with five goals per game. Furthermore, the Wolverines beat the Spartans twice before, 9-2 and 6-3, in January.
That’s why, after Saturday’s victory, senior forward Justin Selman dubbed the loss a wake-up call — a sentiment his teammates agreed with.
“We definitely didn’t come out the way we have been these past few games, especially after coming off a huge weekend in New York,” said senior forward Boo Nieves. “We can’t let teams creep up on us like that.
“Every game counts at this point, and we really want to win the Big Ten. To stay on top of that, we really need to show up every game and make sure that we don’t (need) to have any more bounce backs on Saturdays.”
By no means are the wheels falling off for the Wolverines. They are still first in the Big Ten, but the loss wasn’t pretty and dropped Michigan two spots in the PairWise Rankings to No. 6.
They’re still in the driver’s seat, but the loss could end up being the wake-up call the Wolverines needed.
“Sometimes when you’re winning, you’re giving up too much,” said associate head coach Billy Powers. “You can work on it, you can focus on it, but there’s not the urgency because you feel pretty good about what you’ve been doing as a player.”
RACINE IS ROLLING: It was quite the weekend for senior goaltender Steve Racine.
The veteran netminder put together his best series of the season against the Spartans, recording a .949 save percentage to the tune of 71 total saves.
The Wolverines allowed four goals in two games, the lowest total in a two-game series since they played Dartmouth Nov. 27 and 28.
Earlier in the season, Michigan coach Red Berenson stressed how important it was to find a way to win games when the Wolverine offense can’t pour goals into the net.
Now, it appears Racine may be the key piece of that equation.
“He’s definitely doing his job and his part in a huge way,” Powers said. “In attempting to obviously contribute to that (goals-against) number coming down, I think he’s found a groove, found a game that is working for him — a mental makeup that is working for him. I think he’s backboning our defensive mindset, trying to improve.”
BIG STAKES IN THE BIG TEN: The state of the Big Ten doesn’t do Michigan any favors. Half of the conference has losing records, and any loss hurts the Wolverines’ position in the PairWise Rankings.
That’s evident from the past two weekend’s results. The sweep against Penn State boosted Michigan to No. 4 in the PairWise rankings, but the overtime loss against Michigan State dropped it immediately back to No. 6.
“You look at the Big Ten’s non-league record, and I haven’t done that, but I’m willing to bet that there’s one or two leagues that we probably played against that we have not fared well with,” Powers said. “That’s a league issue. We have to be better as a group in our non-league schedule.”
Added Nieves: “It can be frustrating to see teams that maybe you think you’re better than or maybe you beat, they rank up higher than you or drop a little less quickly than you. It’s just the way the system is and we can only control what we can do.”
With half the Big Ten in disarray, every game holds enormous weight — as losses to teams like Wisconsin can ruin their standing, but wins to close out the season against Minnesota and Penn State could be statement victories.
A REALLY BIG RINK: Michigan will travel to take on Wisconsin this weekend for the second time this season. The last time the Wolverines played the Badgers, though, was on home ice.
Now, Michigan has to play on an Olympic-size ice rink in Madison — something the Wolverines will prepare for by practicing at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube for the next few days.
But the change may be a welcome one for Michigan, as the rink may allow a number of Wolverines to take advantage of their speed even more so than they already have this year.
“Well, when I have the puck, I don’t mind (the bigger rink),” Nieves said with a laugh. “It’s fun to play on a bigger rink. It definitely changes the game up. You can use the perimeter better. Rink-wide passes are a little more dangerous.”
STUDY BREAK: About half the Wolverine squad didn’t take the ice for practice Monday. And part of the reason for that? Midterm season is approaching.
While Berenson gave the team an optional practice partly due to the physicality of last weekend’s rivalry series, he also recognized the players’ academic responsibilities — something he has become known for over the years.
“We talked after Saturday, (and) we knew that this would be a busy week in school,” Powers said. “We’ve done it in the past. … It worked out really well that you can get a mental break, or a physical break from going out on the ice, but you can feel good about having a few extra hours to work on school.”