The Michigan-Minnesota hockey rivalry may include Jeff Tambellini and Thomas Vanek instead of Jordan Leopold and Mike Cammalleri, but the two teams are back playing in the semifinals of the Frozen Four for the second-straight year. But tonight’s game won’t be played in front of 18,000 Minnesota fans in St. Paul, Minn., but in Buffalo, N.Y. in front of a neutral crowd.
Also unlike last year, it is Michigan which will come in with more experience, as the Golden Gophers have transformed from a senior- to an underclassmen-led squad.
As the only non-No. 1 seed in Buffalo, the Wolverines are the darkhorse on paper this weekend. But this is the time of year when Michigan excels, as the Wolverines were also a No. 3 seed when they won their last national title in 1998. No matter who wins tonight between these two Big Ten rivals, it will be Cornell’s tournament to lose with an upstate New York crowd and a juggernaut defense.
Michigan offense vs. Minnesota defense: The Gopher defense features six strong blueliners that shut down the vaunted Ferris State offense in the West Regional semifinal. The Bulldogs had just 20 shots on goal and scored just four goals thanks to two soft ones given up by goaltender Justin Johnson in the first period.
The pairing of lone senior defenseman Matt DeMarchi and sophomore Keith Ballard is playing some of its best hockey of the season, and Paul Martin has worked well with freshman Chris Harrington.
Michigan has a clear No. 1 line with seniors Jed Ortmeyer and John Shouneyia playing along with CCHA Rookie of the Year Tambellini, but it has relied on someone coming out of the woodwork to score when needed. Whether it be Mark Mink, Michael Woodford or Milan Gaijc, someone from the third or fourth line is going to have to come up big for Michigan to advance.
Michigan defense vs. Minnesota offense: The forward tandem of the freshman Vanek and junior Troy Riddle is the as good as any Michigan will face this year, and the Wolverines have faced some good ones. Vanek tops the nation in goals among freshmen and ranks second in points. The Gophers scored 16 goals in two regional games, but they had the advantage of playing in their home 100-foot-wide ice rink.
In Buffalo, the Gopher offense will have to contend on an 85-foot-wide rink with a Michigan defense that never ceases to amaze. The Wolverines will likely go just five deep tonight, but Mike Roemensky and Andy Burnes have made quality plays all season long, and Brandon Rogers and Nick Martens have improved as well. But the five-man unit is going to have all it handle dealing with Vanek and Co.
Goaltending: This is the one area where Michigan has the clear advantage. Freshman Al Montoya came into a tough spot starting at Yost as the youngest player in college hockey, but has just gotten better as the season has gone along. If Montoya had not made some incredible saves against Maine, Michigan would be watching this weekend on TV.
The Gophers filled their vacant crease with two sophomores, Travis Weber and Johnson. Both have been adequate, but neither can steal a game away, something that is sometimes needed on a stage this high.
Special Teams: Just as in Michigan’s regional final, the Wolverines’ second-ranked penalty kill will be going up against a top-notch powerplay. Colorado College embarrassed Michigan for two goals early on, but then the Wolverine penalty kill performed as well as it has all season. Minnesota could put on a similar clinic if Michigan is not ready, but finding ways to stop such a vaunted attack is where the Michigan coaching staff excels.
Neither the Michigan powerplay or the Minnesota penalty kill are anything to boast about, and it is yet to be seen if either unit will be much of a factor.
Intangibles: Red Berenson and Minnesota coach Don Lucia are two of the best coaches in the game, so both teams will be ready for one another. On paper, Minnesota has more talent than Michigan, but so did Colorado College. Michigan also played at HSBC Arena to start the season.
In addition, the Gophers are trying to become the first team to repeat in 31 years, and the Wolverines have lost two straight national semifinals. So one could say Michigan is due.
This game looks to be another classic in which neither team will want to give up much, so the game should come down to defense and goaltending.
Minnesota might have an edge defensively, but look for Montoya to come up with the big saves necessary to excel in playoff hockey and set up a showdown against the best defense in the nation in Cornell on Saturday night.
Prediction: Michigan 3, Minnesota 2 (OT)