Alaska’s on-ice results might not be consistent, but you can always count on the Nanooks to be the CCHA’s most passionate squad.
As No. 13 Michigan prepares to face off with Alaska in Fairbanks tonight, memories of last season’s series opener are still fresh in the Wolverines’ minds.
Michigan entered the Carlson Center on Oct. 28 with a 4-0-1 record and a No. 1 ranking.
But once the referee dropped the puck, it was hard to tell which team was supposed to be the nation’s best.
The Nanooks, fresh off an upset of the previous No. 1 (Minnesota), outskated and outhustled the Wolverines in front of one of the CCHA’s loudest and rowdiest crowds en route to a 4-2 victory.
Sophomore goaltender Billy Sauer remembers the game vividly.
Before facing the Nanooks last year, Sauer had helped the Wolverines knock off Boston College and hold Michigan State to a tie. But after allowing Alaska to notch four goals in the first game, Sauer was replaced by then-senior Noah Ruden between the pipes.
This time around, Sauer hopes to erase those bad memories by putting up the same strong performance that helped Michigan notch wins over Bowling Green and Northern Michigan last week.
“(Last year’s game) was my first loss ever in college,” Sauer said. “It would be kind of nice to get a little payback for that.”
One of the keys to whether Sauer can avenge last year’s defeat will be how he plays on Alaska’s Olympic-sized ice. Most college hockey rinks are 200-feet long by 85-feet wide. But a handful of schools, including Alaska, have rinks that are 200 feet by 100 feet.
In last year’s series opener in Fairbanks, Sauer struggled with the wider angles and gave up goals that he usually saves. Because a scheduling conflict forced the Wolverines to practice at a different rink until the day of last year’s game, Sauer was even less prepared for the wider rink.
This year, Michigan (10-6-0 CCHA, 15-9-0 overall) arrived in Alaska on Wednesday night and was promised some extra ice time before the first game.
“We (had) some extra practices (in the days we were there before the game),” Sauer said. “I’m going to spend some extra time on the ice and kind of make some markers so that when it comes game time, I will be used to it.”
In addition to adjusting to the larger rink, Michigan will try to be consistent between the two nights. Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Northern Michigan marked the fifth time this season Michigan lost the second game of a series after winning the first.
Last week, it seemed as if the Wolverines had taken a step in the right direction with Tuesday’s convincing victory over Bowling Green and Friday’s shutout win over Northern Michigan.
But once Saturday rolled around, it appeared as if nothing had changed for the Maize and Blue.
Alternate captain T.J. Hensick hopes things will be different this weekend.
“I think it’s an ongoing thing that we’re trying to get two good games together,” Hensick said. “I think we did that last week Tuesday and Friday, but we forgot we had a game Saturday. We need to put a good weekend together this week.”
The Nanooks (5-8-3, 7-11-4) seem like the perfect opponent for a Michigan squad looking for two solid victories. Alaska is in the midst of a seven-game losing streak, which includes a pair of losses at Michigan State last weekend.
Despite the Nanooks’ struggles, they have not relinquished their passion for the game. After Friday night’s hard-fought overtime loss in East Lansing, a brawl started when Alaska coach Tavis MacMillan confronted Michigan State coach Rick Comley during the handshake line.
And the Nanooks’ fans are just as raucous as the players. With an extra year of experience under his belt, Sauer is looking forward to the challenge of playing in hostile Carlson Center.
“I think it’s fun,” Sauer said. “I don’t like to play in front of a nice, steady crowd. The more crap I get, and the harder time the fans give me, the more I like to play. It’s a fun environment.”
Michigan at Alaska
Matchup: Michigan 15-9; Alaska 7-11-4
When: Tonight 11:05 P.M.
Where: Carlson Center
TV/Radio: ESPN Plus