The Michigan hockey team’s season has been one chock-full of storylines.
The team’s 19-year NCAA Tournament streak is in jeopardy. Its goaltender is injured. And now a senior captain who won’t play in the team’s most important games of the season against rival Michigan State, a best-of-three series that starts tonight.
And with the Wolverines’ 1-3 season record against the Spartans, Michigan coach Red Berenson will be the first to tell you how this series is not short on plot twists.
“There’s a lot of stories going into this weekend,” Berenson said with a laugh.
And as much as the Wolverines may miss their top defenseman in senior captain Chris Summers, Berenson remains confident that the team’s defensive corps is more than capable of contending with the Spartans’ high-octane offense.
“When you lose a player, senior, leader, captain, it speaks for itself,” Berenson said. “But that’s the way it is. We can’t sit here and feel sorry for ourselves.”
After Michigan handily defeated the No. 10 seed Lake Superior State last weekend, the Wolverines are heading into the weekend with arguably their most momentum of the season.
Over and over, the players and coaches have assured that the team is playing its best hockey of the season right now.
The Wolverines accounted for 11 goals last weekend against the Lakers, tying a season series high. But more important than the proficiency on offense was the defense’s performance, allowing just two goals on the weekend in one of its most complete series of the year.
Considering the Spartans boast three of the league’s most talented scoring forwards in Corey Tropp, Andrew Rowe and Derek Grant, playing smart, mistake-free defense is what Berenson says will be Michigan’s key to success, especially without an experience blue liner like Summers suiting up.
“If we let the defense get outnumbered time and time again, then it won’t matter who’s on defense,” Berenson said. “You saw what happened the last time we played Michigan State (at Munn Ice Arena). Outnumbered rush, outnumbered rush and a turnover. That’s three goals.”
Senior defenseman Steve Kampfer, who will be the de facto leader of the defense with Summers out, says that situations like what happened last time against the Spartans have plagued the Wolverines’ performances on the blue line all season.
“That’s been our Achilles heel,” Kampfer said. “We’ve had some breakdowns this year in our defensive zone and teams have capitalized on us, and when you have a team like Michigan State who can put pucks in the back of the net, you have to make sure you’re playing as tight as possible defensively.”
If there’s a bright side for the Wolverines, it’s that Michigan State is limping into the CCHA Tournament, having finished the season with a record of 4-4-2.
But on the flip side, the Spartans’ disappointing finish has put them squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble, which Berenson says will provide Michigan State coach Rick Comley with enough motivation to light a fire under his struggling Spartans.
Regardless, with playoff hockey in full swing, Berenson insists that nothing is guaranteed for either side, especially in a matchup of two rivalry teams.
“You don’t have any script for how a playoff series might go,” Berenson said. “We want to win the game Friday, not give the home team any confidence. But I’ve seen it work the other way where teams have lost and bounce back. They’re going to have something to say about that too.”