On Thursday, the No. 3 Michigan hockey team will face the toughest competition it has seen yet — at least according to the polls. With back-to-back contests against No. 2 Minnesota, the weekend’s slate is set to be a clash of giants. Just like the Wolverines, the Golden Gophers are a fast, talent rich team with a dominant first line.
The two squads are in many respects mirror images of one another, and with their similarities, they’ve acted as foils to one another in the past. Just last year, Minnesota eked out a Big Ten regular season title over Michigan, and just a few weeks later, the Wolverines rained on the Gophers’ parade with a slim victory in the Big Ten Championship Game in Minneapolis.
But despite historical precedent and rivalry, what this weekend boils down to most is the fact that Minnesota and Michigan are very, very good teams, and they’re both trying to assert control over a conference that is much deeper than expected. With six points up for grabs between two top-three teams looking to solidify their positions, this weekend will be intense. Here are three things to watch for amid that clash.
Which first line prevails?
Both the Wolverines and the Gophers run through their first lines.
So far, Minnesota’s top group of forwards Logan Cooley, Matthew Knies and Jimmy Snuggerud has tallied 18 goals, and Michigan’s line — sophomore forwards Dylan Duke and Mackie Samoskevich along with freshman forward Adam Fantilli — has netted 24. For both teams, over 40% of their scoring has come from their top unit.
This is something that Michigan coach Brandon Naurato has both praised and lamented. But regardless of Naurato’s wishes, the reality of the situation is that this weekend could very well come down to which top line asserts itself against the other. And asserting that will doesn’t just look like scoring goals, momentum will be decided by who controls the neutral zone, whose forecheck commits to its game and who capitalizes on rush chances.
It’s fully possible that the two lines will cancel each other out with both looking stellar. But if one line can slow the other, it builds a huge advantage for its team on both ends. If one of the top lines in college hockey is hemmed in their defensive end, it means that a major offensive asset has been taken away. But it also means that one of college hockey’s most elite lines is consistently on offense.
Who wins on special teams?
On Nov. 1 while interviewing members of the Michigan hockey team, Naurato walked through the office and called out to Samoskevich.
“31.8%,” Naurato proclaimed, in reference to his team’s powerplay efficiency. “Stay at 31.8 boys — life’s good.”
In the past three weeks, that number has risen to 33%. Because of that, special teams is where the Wolverines have the biggest advantage over Minnesota. Operating at high efficiency, Michigan’s man advantage is one of the most effective in the country. It creates offensive motion well, pulling defenders out of position and burying chances.
If this success continues against the Gophers, it immediately puts them at a disadvantage. Minnesota has to be disciplined, because it can’t afford to skirmish often with such an offensive weapon. For the most part however, it has been effective on the penalty kill, allowing goals on just 7-of-34 opportunities. Conversely, its powerplay is nowhere near the Wolverines.’ With a conversion rate of 21.3%, the Golden Gophers are solid on the power play, but nothing to write home about.
This is where Michigan is the most likely to create separation. If the Wolverines’ special teams unit comes through as they have in the past, they walk out with an advantage.
But it’s also a double-edged sword. If a major part of its offense isn’t working, Michigan is hindered, and Minnesota wins momentum that can translate to the scoreoard.
Who wins the footrace?
Neither Michigan nor Minnesota considers itself above a footrace. Throughout the season, both sides have shown that this play style works, and both have some of the most dangerous rush offenses in the country.
“We’re a really good skating team,” junior defenseman Steven Holtz said after defeating Western Michigan on Oct. 28. “Obviously I’m biased, I think we’re the best skating team in the country, and if you want us to skate, we’ll skate.”
But the exact same is true for the Golden Gophers, and the Wolverines know this.
“It’ll be back and forth, just a track meet style of game,” freshman forward Jackson Hallum said Monday.
Throughout the weekend, there will be breakaways, and there will be goals off of those breakaways. But the question becomes which team minimizes the mistakes that lead to these rushes. Bobbled pucks at the blue line, missed hits and errant passes lead to those rushes, and if one side is more guilty of this than the other, it will suffer.
Both sides can — will — win footraces, but if one side can lead to a disparity in how many races are held, that side will likely win.
In a top ranked and highly touted matchup between conference rivals, Michigan can push itself toward the top of its conference. But that won’t be easy against Minnesota, and any disparity could tip the scales.