Something’s gotta give. When the Michigan ice hockey team faces off against Northern Michigan this weekend at Yost Ice Arena, the CCHA’s best offense will be up against its best defense.
Michigan (16-2-0 CCHA, 19-6-1 overall) leads the CCHA in scoring — averaging 4.3 goals per game. At times, it has looked like the Wolverines can score at will. Sophomore T.J. Hensick has hovered near the top of the CCHA leading scorers’ list all season long and is a realistic candidate for the Hobey Baker Award, given to college hockey’s best player. Hensick is second in the conference in scoring with 35 points and leads the league with 16 goals. And he’s not the only one putting up points. Michigan has 13 players this season who have double-digit points, including five with 20 or more. The team has scored fewer than four goals at Yost just once all season.
“You never know how many we’re ever going to get,” senior captain Eric Nystrom said. “And that’s what our team is capable of doing. That’s one of the strengths of our team, and that’s why we do it. Momentum is so huge in college hockey that once you get the ball rolling, sometimes it snowballs.”
Last week in Columbus, the Wolverines scored five goals in a huge second period that led Michigan over the Buckeyes. In fact, Michigan has scored three or more goals in a single period 13 times this season. On the other end of the spectrum, the Wildcats score just 2.6 goals per game. But they don’t have to score any more than that; they allow just 2.2 goals per game, and their style of play has the Wildcats (10-5-3, 12-7-5) third in the conference. It starts with their goalie, senior Tuomas Tarkki. Among starting goalies, Tarkki leads the CCHA in both goals against average (1.79) and save percentage (.940).
“Their good goaltending has been their finishing kick,” Hensick said. “He’s playing real well. He’s the backbone of that team.
“That puts a lot of pressure on our team to pick it up, knowing that they only need one or two goals to get the win. It’s something that we’ve been focusing on all week.”
As if it wasn’t going to be enough of a challenge for the Wolverines to score this weekend on the Wildcats’ stingy defense, yesterday they were dealt the news that three of their forwards will not play in the series. Center David Moss — who is fourth on the team in scoring with 24 points — suffered a groin injury earlier this week and will not play. Sophomore forwards Mike Brown and David Rohlfs both contracted mononucleosis and will also have to watch from the stands. Coach Red Berenson said that they are in different stages of the illness and would be week-to-week.
With those three out, seniors Mike Woodford, Charlie Henderson and Reilly Olson will dress in their places. Olson normally plays defense, but he might have to fill in at forward this weekend, Berenson said. He played on a line with Woodford and Henderson yesterday at practice.
Berenson and his players said that the defensive-oriented Northern Michigan style of play puts more pressure on the Wolverines’ defense than their offense.
“There’s always the pressure on our offensive output, but I think that, if we’re playing well defensively, then the offense will take care of itself,” Hensick said. “It’s not something that we put too much pressure on. But in a game that is going to be a defensive style of play all weekend, the goals are going to be important.”
Since last week, the Michigan defense has practiced blocking shots. This season, the coaching staff has used pucks instead of tennis balls to help their players become less fearful of getting in front of the puck. At the end of practice yesterday, Berenson — who used to be an all-star center in the NHL — took the forwards aside to talk about the intricacies of faceoffs. Losing faceoffs in the defensive zone has been a problem for the Wolverines recently, and Berenson doesn’t want to give Northern Michigan any easy chances.
“You can’t give up much because it’s so hard to get it back,” Berenson said. “So that’s the state that you’re in. But that’s a little emphasis on things that are important anyway.”