The Michigan hockey team has had down years, like this one, before. Similarly, Michigan State has had forgettable seasons as well.
But rarely do both teams find themselves at or near the bottom of the CCHA standings. That will be the case, though, when they square off this weekend — Friday at Yost Ice Arena and Saturday at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
Michigan coach Red Berenson doesn’t think it matters in the rivalry whether the teams are playing for the MacInnes Cup (awarded to the Great Lakes Invitational champion), the Mason Cup (awarded to the CCHA Tournament champion) or to avoid last place in the conference.
“There’s bragging rights (on the line),” Berenson said. “I can’t tell you there’s a hatred between the schools, but there’s a lot of respect, a lot of dislike and a lot of pride between these two.
“We can lament the fact of where they are (in the standings) and where we are, but I don’t think it changes anything. There’s still a lot at stake for both these programs. … To me, it doesn’t change anything. It’d be like if we were in first place and they were in second.”
Berenson said non-Michigan players like Ontario natives and sophomore forwards Alex Guptill and Phil Di Giuseppe probably heard little about the rivalry before coming to Michigan. But they found out quickly upon their arrival in Ann Arbor how seriously both programs take their meetings.
On the other hand, players that hail from Michigan need no reminding how much college hockey’s most played series means.
“For us seniors, it’s our last two games playing Michigan State, so I think it actually means a lot more to us now,” said senior forward and Grosse Pointe-native Kevin Lynch. “Obviously, we’re two of the teams at the bottom of the standings, but we’re all just trying to play for pride here and play for the name on the front of our sweater. I think it’s a huge weekend for both of our teams.”
Like the players who aren’t Michigan natives, freshmen have learned easily how different wins and losses feel against the Spartans. The 7-2 defeat the Wolverines suffered in East Lansing on Nov. 10, for example, has been one of the season’s low points to date — and in a year with plenty of painful losses, that’s saying something.
“I think I’ve sort of grasped a little bit of what (the rivalry is) like,” said freshman forward Boo Nieves. “It’s exciting to play them again.”
Exciting, maybe, but there’s also a sense of desperation surrounding the matchup this time. Usually when Michigan plays Michigan State, one team is having a solid season and the other is somewhere around the middle of the CCHA standings. This time, however, whichever team gets the short end of the six points on the line will likely find itself in last place.
“It’s the only time I can remember these two teams (being) where they are (in the standings),” Berenson said. “It’s ironic that here it is in the last year of the conference and you’ve got the two mainstays in this league near the bottom.”
NOTE: After replacing junior goalie Adam Janecyk with freshman Jared Rutledge in the third period of last Saturday’s blowout loss to Western Michigan, Berenson is playing his cards close to his vest about Friday’s starter in net. He chose not to announce his decision when pressed Thursday.