A small but talented senior class will play its last scheduled home games for the No. 4 Michigan hockey team at Yost Ice Arena this weekend. But if the series against Northern Michigan goes better for the Wolverines than the last time the two teams met, they will earn more dates in the arena’s friendly confines.

Senior defenseman Greg Pateryn acknowledged that it’s always hard to watch teammates skate off the Yost rink for the last time — now it’s his turn.

“In years past … guys were getting pretty sad about it,” Pateryn said. “It’s (our) favorite place to play in the country. … It’s kind of weird to think about how you were just a freshman a few years ago.”

When Michigan (12-8-4 CCHA, 18-10-4 overall) traveled to Marquette for an October series against the Wildcats (9-9-6, 14-10-6), conference play got off to a rocky start. In the series opener, Wolverine fifth-year senior goaltender Shawn Hunwick was ejected for throwing a punch in a second-period brawl.

Northern Michigan plans on keeping its emotions in check while playing in a hostile environment this weekend, with six critical CCHA points hanging in the balance.

“I think it’s good that there’s a rivalry between us,” said Wildcat senior forward Andrew Cherniwchan in an interview with ESPN 970. “(It) brings a lot of emotion to the game. But at the same time, you can’t let your emotions get the best of you and you just got to keep a level head.”

Cherniwchan went on to say that he feels the Wolverines are usually the instigators.

“We’re hard working and we’re physical,” Cherniwchan said. “Sometimes they take offense to that.”

Awaiting Northern Michigan after its long bus ride from the Upper Peninsula will be a team that hardly resembles the one that the Wildcats took four out of six points from in October. Michigan’s leaders have emerged, and Hunwick knows he can’t afford to lose his head and place his team in a vulnerable position.

In his weekly film session, what stood out the most to Michigan coach Red Berenson was the Wildcats’ special-teams prowess. Northern Michigan ranks near the top of the CCHA in both power-play and penalty-kill percentages.

But to Berenson, it’s just another stage of a gauntlet through tough special teams opponents in recent weeks.

“Every week, we look at another team with good special teams,” Berenson said. “Notre Dame, Miami (Ohio), Michigan State — and now Northern.”

Wednesday, the Wolverines ran a 5-on-3 drill, rotating players from offense to defense to simulate a tough kill or a crucial man advantage.

“In practice, you can stop the drill and figure things out,” said junior forward Lindsay Sparks. “In the games, you can’t really do that. So it’s a good tool.”

During the series in Marquette, the Wolverines struggled to find the net on the power play, going 0-for-6 with an extra skater in the Friday night loss to the Wildcats. The next night wasn’t much better, though Michigan did manage a shootout win. In that game, it was the penalty kill’s shortcomings that made the difference, as Northern Michigan notched two power-play goals.

“It’s the little things on special teams,” Pateryn said. “I think what it comes down to is our work ethic.”

Berenson scoffed when asked if special teams will determine the winner this weekend — “It usually decides weekends,” he said. But for this one, it seems especially important that the Wolverines manage to cut down penalties, which have engulfed them at their worst this season.

He also expects emotions to play only a marginal role on senior night. Berenson believes the tears and memories are best saved for the last time his skaters take their jerseys off.

With playoff positioning — as well as an outside shot at the CCHA title — on the line, Michigan should have all the incentive it needs to earn another home series in March.

NOTE: Saturday night’s game against the Wildcats is a 5:05 start time. The earlier puck drop is due to that evening’s men’s basketball game against Ohio State, as well as to accommodate the festivities for “Hockey Night in Michigan,” which will take place on Saturday.

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