Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson frequently points out the slim margin that separates his first-place team from the rest of the CCHA competition. But when the top two teams in the CCHA square off this weekend, the margins between the teams could actually be quite slim. No. 10 Ohio State plays host to the No. 3 Wolverines this weekend, and this time, the Wolverines might have their hands full.
The Wolverines (15-1-0 CCHA, 18-5-1 overall) have not fared well this season against ranked opponents, posting an 0-2-1 record. But since losing a pair to then-No. 3 Minnesota and then-No. 2 Wisconsin, Michigan has gone on a tear. In the 10 games following the loss to the Badgers, the Wolverines own a 9-1 record and have outscored their opponents 54-25
“(Playing a ranked team) isn’t the issue,” Berenson said. “The issue is (that) this is the best team we will have played in some time. But we’re also playing better than we have in some time.”
Beyond rankings, the four points up for grabs this weekend could determine just how much of a threat Ohio State (12-3-1, 15-6-3) will pose to Michigan down the stretch. Should Ohio State claim both games, the Wolverines’ lead in the CCHA would shrink to one point. Flip it the other way and Michigan creates a giant mountain for Ohio State to climb — nine points.
“I think it’s an opportunity to take a lead but not necessarily preserve it,” Berenson said. “The only thing you can do to stay ahead of a team is to beat them. And if you can’t beat that team, you don’t deserve to finish ahead of them.
“You still might, but it’s the head-on games that I always look at as being the key games,” he added.
The teams split two games in Columbus last season, and Michigan swept the pair at Yost. But Ohio State edged out the Wolverines when it counted, at the CCHA Super Six championship game. The Buckeyes defeated Michigan 4-2 to claim the conference playoff title.
“If you want to do well down the stretch, you’ve got to play well on the road,” senior forward Jason Ryznar said. “That’s a great challenge for our team this weekend.”
As has been the case all season, special teams will continue to play an important role this weekend. The Buckeyes’ penalty kill unit is the best in the conference and has scored five shorthanded goals.
“They’re very solid in both areas of special teams,” Berenson said. “But they take a lot of penalties. Now, maybe, they won’t take a lot of penalties against us. But discipline will be important.”
Ohio State will be host to arguably the biggest home-ice advantage of any Michigan opponent. The Buckeye faithful that will pack the sold-out Value City Arena will attempt to shake the Wolverines, who have suffered all of their five losses away from Ann Arbor. With Ohio State hosting this year’s Frozen Four, Berenson wants to see his team come home feeling comfortable in a hostile environment.
“For me, (the home-ice advantage) doesn’t play in my mind,” Berenson said. “I think it does with Ohio State. You’d like to have a good experience in there, and you’d like to have a chance to go back there. But that’s a long way out.”
Despite battling an ankle injury all week, senior forward Milan Gajic will be in the lineup tonight for the 7:05 p.m. faceoff.