Michigan-Michigan State is always a big hockey game, regardless of the rankings. But when the two teams face off on Saturday night at Yost Ice Arena, the national expectations will add fuel to the already heated in-state fire, since both teams come into this game ranked in the top 10.
The Spartans (2-0-0 overall) beat No. 8 North Dakota last weekend to claim the No. 10 spot in the polls. Michigan (4-0-0) grabbed an impressive 3-2 win over then No. 5 Boston College on Saturday and followed that up with a 9-2 rout of Merrimack on Sunday to earn the top spot in the nation.
Michigan was preseason No. 1 last year before losing its first game to Northeastern. Then the Wolverines claimed the No. 1 ranking in the middle of the last year but lost their next two games to No. 3 Minnesota and No. 2 Wisconsin to drop a few slots in the polls. So maybe it is the lessons learned from that experience that has Michigan coach Red Berenson telling his team to ignore the early season opinions of the voters.
“We’ve addressed the ranking thing, and how fickle that is this time of year,” Berenson said. “Every weekend, two more games go by, and someone moves up or someone moves down depending on those games. So, the ranking doesn’t matter.”
Last season, the Wolverines were 2-1-2 against the Spartans. Both wins came early in the year, and in both games the Wolverines found the net with relative ease, scoring a combined nine goals. However, Michigan State goalie Dominic Vicari was much tougher the next three times around and allowed just four goals total. Not surprisingly, the Wolverines didn’t fair too well, going 0-1-2 in those contests. Vicari’s ability to steal a game was evident last year when he made 82 saves to will his team to consecutive ties with the Wolverines, and it hasn’t escaped Berenson’s mind.
“He is one of the better goalies in the league, and he can make the difference in the game,” Berenson said. “We’ve had games where we may have outplayed them or out-shot them, but we couldn’t score.”
Much has been made about Michigan’s group of freshmen this year, but Michigan State has a pair of talented youngsters as well. Justin Abdelkader, who was drafted in the second round by the Red Wings, and Tim Kennedy have given the Spartans a lift this year.
“I like the two freshman that they have in Kennedy and Abdelkader,” Berenson said. “These are skilled players.”
The freshmen have combined with captain Drew Miller and alternate captain Colton Fretter to key the Spartan offensive attack. Miller and Fretter are averaging a point a game so far this season.
“The guys who will be key players for them will be Miller A– he’s one of the top players in the league – and Fretter, who is a good veteran,” Berenson said. “I think they have more high-end skill than last year.”
An X-factor in Saturday night’s game may be which team is able to stay at full strength the longest. Each team will be eager to lay some big hits to send a message to its rival, especially considering each teams has at least 13 players on its roster from the state of Michigan. The loud atmosphere of Yost, the hatred between the two teams and the fact that officials have been calling games more tightly this season could result in a lot of penalties – especially early on when the refs will want to make sure the game doesn’t get out of hand. So whichever team is able to play under control and avoid costly mistakes should have a big edge in the game.
“You’ve got to be ready with your penalty killing, powerplay and discipline.” Berenson said. “It’s not going to be a penalty-free game, but you have to try to keep your emotions under control and make sure the penalties don’t hurt you.”