As the No. 2 Michigan hockey team gears up for its penultimate regular season series, it has one goal in mind:
Win the Big Ten.
The Wolverines currently lead the conference by two points over No. 5 Minnesota and three points over No. 11 Ohio State. With the Buckeyes visiting Yost Ice Arena this weekend, Michigan will have the opportunity not only to expand upon its lead, but bury its enemies from Columbus.
For Ohio State, this trip north is everything. The Buckeyes are coming off a deflating sweep at home versus the Golden Gophers, and after this weekend, they have no more matchups until the conference tournament.
The Wolverines expect that desperation to turn into added aggression.
“They play a hard game,” junior forward Nick Granowicz said. “We know they’re gonna bring it because they’re chasing the Big Ten title, too, just like we are. We’ve got to be playing our best game. Use our speed. Keep it simple when we need to and just kind of get the puck to the net.”
There’s extra incentive for both teams, with home ice throughout the conference tournament at stake. Playing in front of home fans during some of the biggest games is a major advantage. That alone should be enough to instill a sense of urgency in these players.
But, looking down the road, the Big Ten champion will also receive a major resumé boost heading into the NCAA Tournament. All three of these teams are good enough and deep enough that while a conference championship is desired, there’s only one true goal: the Frozen Four.
Securing home ice would presumably make Michigan’s path to a championship easier.
The Wolverines have been superb at Yost this season, compiling a 12-5-1 record in front of their raucous fans. They balance skill with swagger and feed off the crowd’s energy. Michigan’s last home loss came on Dec. 3rd — when second-place Minnesota topped it 5-1 — and it hasn’t dropped a game in regulation since Dec. 11th, when a visit to the Buckeyes turned into a bloodbath.
It may have been over two months ago, but the Wolverines still vividly remember that series. Sophomore defenseman Steve Holtz — who was playing his best hockey of the season at the time — went down with a season-ending shoulder injury, and sophomore defenseman Jacob Truscott also suffered an apparent upper-body injury against Ohio State.
There’s simply no love lost between these two.
“We were losing and they were playing chippy,” senior forward Jimmy Lambert said. “We weren’t happy with the way that they were playing. We kind of lost our cool but it’s definitely hard to stay emotionally in check when you’re playing some Big Ten rivals. It’s tough to back down from stuff.”
The season is winding down and because of that, every game becomes all the more important. After this weekend, the Wolverines will conclude their season with a challenging series in South Bend. Notre Dame may be slotted into the fourth spot in the Big Ten, but last time it faced Michigan, it left Yost with back-to-back overtime victories.
“Right now, every one’s crucial if we want to win the title,” Granowicz said. “After that, whatever happens, you’re in the Big Ten tournament and then it’s one and done. So, right now, it’s basically if we don’t win, we’re not gonna win the title.”
There’s still plenty of hockey to be played and plenty of chances for the standings to shift. For now, even amidst all the postseason implications, the Wolverines will have to concentrate on fending off Ohio State.