When the Central Collegiate Hockey Association disbanded in 2013, Lake Superior State and Michigan’s hockey teams were split into separate conferences. This weekend, for the first time since the conference breakup, the two teams will face off again.
The former rivalry was not only bred from how often the teams played each other, but also by the competitiveness of each team. In an 11-year span from 1988-1998, the teams combined to win five national titles.
“They were really good, and we were pretty good, too,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “A lot of our games were showdown games in the race for first place. Of course, we were in the same conference, so we were playing them four times a year.
“Lake (Superior) State was a benchmark team. If we had a winning record against them, that meant we were a good team — like a good team nationally.”
Since then, the Lakers (6-6-0) have seen some struggles. The program has suffered through four straight losing seasons including an 8-28-2 mark in 2014-15 — current head coach Damon Whitten’s first season.
This year, Lake Superior State — somewhat like the Wolverines (5-4-1) — has been inconsistent. The Lakers jumped out to a 6-1 start this season. Over that time, the team outscored its opponents 35-16, and rose to No. 20 in the USCHO.com poll.
After that, they have struggled, losing five games in a row heading into their matchup with Michigan.
Despite its recent losing stretch, Lake Superior State still boasts the ninth-best scoring offense in the country. And though the Wolverines are conscious of the Lakers’ offensive potency, they have kept the focus on themselves.
“We’ve been really focused on our own systems and kind of working off the (Boston University) weekend and going off of that,” said senior defenseman Nolan De Jong. “Everyone looks at the stats, and everyone looks at the scores, so we know they’re going to be able to score a lot of goals. But we’ve been really focused on our defense and making sure we’re a solid unit back there.”
So far this year, that unit has been solid. Michigan has the ninth-ranked scoring defense in the country, keyed in part by strong goaltending play. Freshman Hayden Lavigne has been especially stout, as he has the best save percentage in the country at .956.
Michigan’s game against Lake Superior State comes after somewhat of a down period for the Wolverines. They played just one exhibition game against the United States National Team Development Program’s U-18 team this past weekend and will have an early Thursday practice before taking the rest of the day off for Thanksgiving.
Though that bit of rest can be nice for a team in the midst of a long season, it is still a long break between meaningful games. And that’s a break that Michigan is excited to end.
“Bye weeks are nice, but you look at how many times we practice, and it’ll be 11 times before we get to play an actual two-game series again,” De Jong said. “Maybe it’s a bit of a refresher just to kind of get away for a second, and then get back at it. But I think we’re all excited to get back and play a two-game series and get in the groove again.”