Wolverines embrace physical style against Spartans

By Alejandro Zúñiga, Daily Sports Editor
Published January 25, 2014

EAST LANSING — After the No. 14 Michigan hockey team earned a chippy win over Michigan State in Detroit on Thursday night, Spartan coach Tom Anastos told reporters the rivalry was “a man’s game” and that the “intensity was tough.”

The problem with the physical nature of the contest? The Wolverines (4-2 Big Ten, 12-6-2 overall) aren’t built for what happens after the gloves are dropped. Fighting isn’t allowed in college hockey, and as sophomore forward Andrew Copp explained during practice earlier in the week, Michigan doesn’t have a true enforcer anyway.

But Copp and the Wolverines spent those practices tussling with each other, or at least pretending to. They drove each other into the boards and to the ground, feigning haymakers to prepare for the weekend’s anticipated physicality.

In its series against the Spartans (2-4-2-2, 8-11-3), Michigan accepted the role of the aggressor, and the style paid off both nights. Friday evening, it completed a series sweep with a 5-2 win at Munn Ice Arena.

“We knew that we had to play stronger and harder and with more of an edge,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “And I think you saw that this weekend.”

For half a period, the teams played clean, unbroken hockey. Then junior defenseman Brennan Serville stepped into an open-ice hit at the edge of Michigan State’s blue line and the game began in earnest.

Four minutes later, Copp and sophomore forward Boo Nieves came threateningly close to blows with Spartan forward Brent Darnell, and the teams earned offsetting minor penalties for roughing after the whistle.

“We didn’t instigate any of the trouble on the ice, but you’ve gotta survive it,” Berenson said. “We’ve gotta play with discipline. We don’t want to take penalties that are going to hurt the team.”

Thursday’s contest in Detroit was no different. Plays didn’t stop at the whistle; they ended when the referees managed to come between shoving and push apart not-so-friendly bear hugs. The Wolverines’ game-winning goal that night was equally as scrappy, coming off of a shot that took several deflections before junior forward Phil Di Giuseppe poked it in on his second effort.

But on Friday, Michigan played pretty when it counted. Fifty-one seconds after going up 3-2 in the third period, senior defenseman Mac Bennett’s backhand-forehand deke netted the Wolverines a fourth.

Minutes later, despite being down a man, a breakout play by Bennett, freshman forward JT Compher and Copp created a two-on-one that Compher buried. And after a weekend of taking a beating from a team not designed to deliver one, Michigan State finally snapped.

With seconds remaining in a three-goal game, the tension boiled over into a brawl in response to a play by the boards in Michigan’s zone.

Michigan State’s Joe Cox picked up junior forward Zach Hyman like a parent cradles a baby. Junior forward Andrew Sinelli exchanged blows with Spartan Thomas Ebbing. Four players — two from each team — received penalties, including one game misconduct, and they jawed at each other even as the referees escorted them off the ice.

“You want to make sure you’re winning the game and not start everything and get too chippy,” Compher said.

Following the ensuing faceoff, defenseman Jake Chelios crosschecked Compher from behind needlessly and ruthlessly and he too was ejected. Compher skated away instead of retaliating, and he later explained that the play was “no big deal” and “part of the game.”

From the bench, Berenson looked both ways before affording a small smile. In a weekend of hard hits and frayed nerves, the Wolverines had kept their cool.