This weekend is a pivotal one for the Michigan hockey team, which faces perhaps its toughest challenge of its season.
The Wolverines (3-1-1 CCHA, 7-1-1 overall) travel to Marquette to face Northern Michigan. The trip presents many potential pitfalls for the young nucleus that comprises this year’s team.
Not only does Michigan have to suffer through a grueling eight-hour bus ride into the Upper Peninsula, they must also contend with an Olympic-size ice rink.
The ice surface at the Berry Events Center is 200 by 100 feet, which is 15 feet wider than Yost Ice Arena. When the Wolverines traveled to Alaska-Fairbanks earlier this season, they faced the same disadvantage. Though the wider ice surface helped quick forwards like junior T.J. Hensick and freshman Andrew Cogliano, Michigan freshman goaltender Billy Sauer had some trouble adjusting.
To combat the troubles they had in Alaska, the Wolverines left for Northern Michigan on Thursday morning to get two practice sessions on the unique playing surface. Michigan also believes that playing on an Olympic-size ice rink already will ease the transition period on this road trip.
“We felt a lot better with the big ice surface during the Saturday game in Alaska,” senior captain Andrew Ebbett said. “We feel a lot better about it because of that game.”
The No. 2 Wolverines play a desperate Northern Michigan team, which was swept last weekend by Michigan State. Up until that series, the Wildcats were undefeated and ranked in the national polls.
Michigan knows that the Wildcats are not to be taken lightly. Last January, Northern Michigan ended the Wolverines 22-game CCHA home winning streak. The Wildcats were also picked to finish third in the CCHA behind Michigan and Ohio State this year. However Northern Michigan should not surprise the Wolverines – the players and coaches are well aware of what the Wildcats are capable of.
“They will be the toughest team we will have played up to this point,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “That is what we’re getting ready for.”
Northern Michigan’s fast start was due in large part to freshman goaltender Bill Zaniboni. He has lessened the impact of the loss of last year’s goalie and CCHA Player of the Year Tuomas Tarkki. Zaniboni was recently named the CCHA Player of the Month for October, compiling a 5-0-0 record. Even after the sweep in East Lansing, he has a 1.85 goals against average with a .927 save percentage. Luckily, the Wolverines have an offensive strategy to go against a hot goaltender.
“We need to create traffic and get rebounds, because a good goalie will always make the first save,” alternate captain Matt Hunwick said. “We need to bury our chances, because you don’t get many chances on the road.”
Unlike past seasons, Michigan’s goaltending situation is not so certain. Berenson has not named the starting goalie for this weekend. The last two weeks have only made the question over who will be the permanent starter between the pipes more confusing.
Two weeks ago in Alaska, Sauer allowed four goals in the Wolverines’ lone loss this season. The next night, senior Noah Ruden played quite well, posting a shutout with 23 saves.
Last weekend against Notre Dame, Ruden allowed five goals in the opener of the home-and-home series. The next night, Sauer rebounded by allowing only two goals, while saving 27 shots. A good performance in the upcoming series by either of the two net minders could go a long way on deciding who will be the permanent fixture in goal.
“Billy Sauer is our goalie of the future, but whether he can handle that now, we don’t know,” Berenson said. “But with Billy and Noah, I like our goalie situation right now.”