The tensions rarely subside between Michigan and Michigan State, and with three games over the next eleven days, the rivalry will likely just grow stronger.
Going into tonight’s game at Munn Ice Arena in East Lansing, the two teams are separated by just one point in the CCHA standings. The Wolverines sit in fourth place and the Spartans are tied for fifth – a difference that has added significance with the CCHA’s revised playoff system. Under the new rules, the fourth-place team receives a first-round bye in the league playoffs.
Michigan is looking to move beyond its recent struggles, which date back to a Dec. 2-3 series with Nebraska-Omaha, according to Wolverines coach Red Berenson. The keys to a turnaround are numerous, and the team has been working hard to get back into the groove.
“We have to try to get back to basics,” junior defenseman Tim Cook said. “We’ve been watching lots of film to find our problems. We just have to focus on all the little things.”
In order to help gauge its performance and room for improvement, the team sets goals for itself before each game. These goals revolve around different statistics and help the team develop an empirical judgment about their play in a given game.
“(The goals include) a number of turnovers to stay under, a number of hits to be above and shots for and against,” Cook said. “Sometimes you think you play a good or a bad game, but these goals can be a better judge of the game.”
Michigan’s focus for tonight’s game is its special-teams play. The team’s power play is ranked third-best in the country, but it has struggled as of late. But last Friday’s exhibition game against the United States National Team Development Program Under-18 team, the Wolverines’ power play showed signs of life, scoring two goals during a five-minute major penalty in the waning minutes of the second period.
The power play will be vital against Michigan State’s strong contingent of goaltenders. Junior Dominic Vicari has fared well against the Wolverines in the past. Freshman Jeff Lerg has allowed just 1.92 goals per game and has posted a .923 save percentage in 13 appearances. When a team has to face strong goaltenders like Vicari and Lerg, creating high-percentage chances on the power play is important to scoring goals.
The Wolverines have been working hard on the ice, but having a Tuesday night game has also required adjustments off it. The team is used to playing on Fridays and Saturdays, so a weeknight game requires different preparation.
“(Having mid-week games) is great,” Cook said. “It’s almost like the pros. With three games you need to get your rest and get your fluids. You also need to make sure you get your homework done, because you don’t have every night free until Friday.”
In addition to making adjustments, Michigan will also have to find a way to slow the Spartans’ recent momentum. After losing to Colorado College in the Great Lakes Invitational Championship game, Michigan State has won four straight with sweeps of Wayne State and Alaska-Fairbanks.
“(The momentum) gives them the advantage,” Berenson said. “Their team is in sync, especially after giving up one goal in two games last weekend (against Alaska-Fairbanks). They are much better than they were at the start of the year, when they had all of those injuries.”
When the two teams met in Ann Arbor on Oct. 22, the result was a 3-3 tie. This was the third consecutive tie between the two teams, and the three contests before that were decided by just four goals. Because the games are so close, the team will have to focus on cutting down bad penalty minutes, Berenson said during his weekly radio show. Through Jan. 15, Michigan has been the most penalized team in the country, averaging 26 minutes per game.
It is especially important that the Wolverines get back on track tonight, because they face a streaking Bowling Green team this Friday and Saturday in a home-and-home series.
The last three meetings…
With the Wolverines and the Spartan traditionally meeting at least four times a season, the standings are often hard to keep straight.
October 22, 2005
Michigan 3, MSU 3 (OT)
In the most recent matchup between the squads, both Ebbett and Cogliano had a goal and an assist. Billy Sauer recorded a career-high 35 saves in the tie.
Michigan State tied the game when Tim Crowder snuck one past Sauer in the second period. Neither team scored in the third.
February 5, 2005
Michigan 1, MSU 1 (OT)
2005 captain Eric Nystrom scored his 50th career goal, and Michigan goalie Al Montoya made 23 saves.
February 4, 2005
Michigan 2, MSU 2 (OT)
Jeff Tambellini had a goal and an assist, and Ebbett had two assists, in the tie against the Spartans