When asked why teams often look past lesser opponents with big games looming ahead,
Michigan coach Red Berenson coolly replied: “Because of questions like that.”
If that’s the case, hopefully Berenson made sure the members of the No. 8 Michigan hockey team didn’t listen to reporters’ questions all week.
With the biggest game of the season – against archrival No. 6 Michigan State – tomorrow night at Joe Louis Arena, the Wolverines will be hard-pressed to be focused on tonight’s road tilt with last-place Bowling Green.
Of course, both players and coaches are quick to assure that Bowling Green (3-19-1 CCHA, 5-24-2 overall) is their first priority.
“(Bowling Green is) a team that hasn’t won many games,” junior Kevin Porter said. “They’re going to come out hard at their own rink. It’s a tough place to play. We’ve got to be ready for that.”
That sounds like hot air, especially since Michigan (16-6-0, 21-9-0) shut out Bowling Green, 5-0, exactly one month ago at Yost Ice Arena.
But Porter isn’t posturing. Last season, Michigan experienced firsthand just how difficult it is to win on the Falcons’ home ice.
After thrashing Bowling Green, 6-1, in Ann Arbor on Jan. 20, 2006, the Wolverines traveled south the next night and paid the price for taking the Falcons lightly. Bowling Green dominated Michigan, 5-2.
And just like this year, the next opponent on Michigan’s schedule was Michigan State.
Michigan doesn’t want to overlook Bowling Green, but it’s impossible to ignore the weight of Saturday’s game against the Spartans.
The result will be crucial in deciding both CCHA playoff seedings and potential NCAA Tournament bids.
As if a game against Michigan State needed extra incentive.
“Coming in as a freshman, I told myself that was a team I never wanted to lose to,” Porter said. “I didn’t care if we lost to Ohio State every game, but Michigan State was a team I never wanted to lose to.”
If Michigan defeats Bowling Green and the Spartans dispatch their Friday night opponent (Ferris State), the rivals will go into Saturday night’s game as two of the nation’s hottest teams.
Currently, Michigan State (13-6-2, 17-8-2) is unbeaten in seven games. The Wolverines have won six straight and eight of their last nine.
So far this season, the Spartans and Wolverines have split their four meetings.
Michigan has won both games in which sophomore defenseman Jack Johnson played, and lost the two he didn’t. Johnson missed Michigan’s 7-4 to loss on Nov. 3 while serving a one-game suspension. The sophomore was absent from the Wolverines 4-1 Great Lakes Invitational final loss because of his participation in the IIHF World Junior Championships.
Johnson is expected to start Saturday.
But Friday night still comes first, and Michigan knows how devastating a late-season loss to Bowling Green can be.
After last season’s tumble at Bowling Green, Michigan finished its remaining conference schedule 4-4-4, concluding one of the worst seasons in recent program history.
That can’t happen this year, not if Michigan has serious aspirations for first place in the CCHA. Notre Dame currently leads the Wolverines by four points with just six games remaining.
With no room for error, the Wolverines are confident they’ve learned from last year’s collapse.
“We know exactly how we have to play,” senior Tim Cook said after last weekend’s sweep of Western Michigan. “If we play hard, play defensively, do the little things, then we’ll be ok.”
Just as long as no one brings this article onto the bus.
Michigan vs. Michigan State
Michigan 21-9-0; Michigan State 17-8-2
When: Saturday 7:35 P.M.
Where: Joe Louis Arena