Two weeks ago, it looked like the highly charged games between CCHA powerhouses Michigan and Michigan State might lack their usual spark in the preseason, once No. 9 Michigan State limped out to a 2-4 start and looked like it would not live up to the high expectations heaped on it at the outset of the season.
But the Spartans (3-3 CCHA, 5-4-1 overall) have started to play better hockey. After an inauspicious start, Michigan State swept Ferris State and beat and tied No. 9 Cornell in a series in East Lansing last weekend. This play did not go unnoticed — the Spartans are back in the polls with a new No. 14 ranking this week.
“I don’t think it matters if we’re in first and they’re in last,” sophomore defenseman Matt Hunwick said. “It’s still a rivalry game and I think that both teams are going to come out and play strong. It doesn’t matter who’s playing well and who’s not — it’s still an intense game.”
Part of the reason for Michigan State’s high preseason ranking was the presence of senior forward Jim Slater. The 2002 NHL first-round draft pick tallied 124 points in his first three seasons in East Lansing and last year he led the CCHA with a plus/minus rating of plus-27. But this year, Slater has fallen on hard times.
Not only has his plus/minus rating plummeted to minus-six, but that number is the lowest on the Michigan State team. Coach Berenson has seen enough of Slater to know that the Spartan star could break out at any moment.
“He can do everything well,” Berenson said. “And that’s what makes him so good. He’s a very hard-working player, he’s a scorer and he’s a leader.”
When pitted against prolific point-scorers during this season, Berenson has deployed his most experienced line, which includes seniors Eric Nystrom and Jason Ryznar. But Berenson is not committed to solely using his big seniors against Slater.
“I think we have four lines that can play against anyone,” Berenson said. “I think as far as we’re concerned, we just have to respect the fact that he’s a good player and we have to be aware of where he is on the ice.”
Ryznar hopes he will get the opportunity to skate against Michigan State’s best when the teams lock up tonight in East Lansing and again on Saturday in Ann Arbor.
“I always love playing against a great opponent,” Ryznar said. “And he’s a great player, and he’s respected, but we won’t give him too much.”
The No. 2 Wolverines (5-1, 7-2-1) are entering the toughest part of their schedule. After two games against Michigan State, the Wolverines will travel to No. 4 Wisconsin and No. 3 Minnesota.
“The next two weeks are going to be a big challenge,” Hunwick said. “We’ll be playing on the road three out of four games, and this will show what kind of character we have and what type of team we are.”
No matter how many tough opponents the Wolverines face, they always save a little something extra for the Spartans.
“There’s a buzz going around the lockerroom,” Ryznar said. “These are the games that we get hyped up for every year. We’re excited and ready to go — it’s always fun when you play the guys in green.”