The days of Niagara and Bentley are long gone. That game against St. Lawrence — just two weeks ago — seems like it was eons ago, and the exhibition against the University of Ontario Institute of Technology is nothing more than memory of a simpler time.
The Michigan hockey team is officially in the midst of the scary part of its schedule — it played on the road against a very physical Northern Michigan team and plays one of the best defenses in the country five days later.
The cupcakes and walk-throughs are officially over for the Wolverines.
No. 4 Michigan (0-1-1 CCHA, 4-1-1 overall) hosts No. 6 Ferris State (2-0-0, 6-0-0) on Thursday and Friday in a critical early-season series that will be decided by defense.
The Bulldogs come into the contest with the best statistical defense in the nation, allowing just .83 goals per game. They’re fresh off a sweep of perennial power No. 16 Miami (Ohio), outscoring the RedHawks, 6-2, over the weekend.
“Their goalies have been playing unbelievable,” said senior goaltender Shawn Hunwick. “If we give up two, that might be too much. They are a hot team and we struggled a little bit last weekend, but we are going to see how we can do on our home ice.”
Against Northern Michigan last Saturday, the Wolverines were unable to capitalize on a five-minute major penalty that stretched into overtime, effectively sealing their fate in a 3-3 shootout win.
Special teams haven’t been a weak spot for Michigan, but they also hasn’t been a strength. Michigan is dead even on special teams, allowing four goals on the penalty kill and scoring four goals on the power play.
In comparison, Ferris State has allowed only one lamplighter on the penalty kill all season, while scoring nine power play goals.
“Offensively, you never know, but we have to make sure we play well defensively,” Berenson said. “You can control your goals against a lot more than your goals scored.”
This series wasn’t supposed to be that big of a challenge for Michigan. The Bulldogs were ranked ninth out of 11 teams in the preseason CCHA coaches poll, earning just over half the voting points that Michigan did.
But Ferris State looks to be legitimate. Its offense doesn’t have a go-to scorer and isn’t overly impressive, but the defense and special teams have looked unbeatable this season. If a team is allowing less than one goal a game, you can afford to not score.
A big reason for the Bulldogs’ defensive success has been the play of the goaltenders. Freshman C.J. Motte and senior Taylor Nelson have carried Ferris State so far, turning a preseason question mark into a major positive. Motte has allowed only one goal all season, and Nelson has allowed just four.
Michigan coach Red Berenson said that the key for his team was not going to be its offense — surprising when you consider the talent of the Bulldog defense. The key, rather, is going to be his defense. When goals are precious, defending the net is crucial.
“We are going to be playing the underdog role here,” junior forward Chris Brown said. “We know that they have a better record than us and they swept Miami (Ohio) last weekend, which was huge. We are going to take advantage of that underdog role and run with it.”