The No. 11 Michigan hockey team will look to punch two tickets this weekend against Western Michigan — one to the NCAA tournament and one back to Yost. But in what Michigan coach Red Berenson has described as a playoff atmosphere in the Wolverines’ final four games, they shouldn’t have to worry about actually coming to blows.
Western Michigan at Michigan
Matchup: Western Michigan 15-7-10; Michigan 19-9-4
When: Friday, Saturday 7:35 P.M.
Where: Yost Ice Arena
TV: Comcast (Fri.), FSN (Sat.)
Two weeks ago in a penalty filled series against then-No. 13 Miami (Ohio), the teams played nearly a full game with at least one player in the penalty box. Last week against Ohio State, Michigan was forced to kill off a penalty — including a five minute major on Saturday — in the third period of both games to preserve two straight one-goal leads.
But this weekend, in the second-to-last regular season series for Michigan, Yost Ice Arena should see plenty of even-strength hockey. The Wolverines and the Broncos are just 31st and 48th in the nation in penalty minutes, respectively.
“I think that’s what it’s going to come down to,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said after practice Thursday. “It’s a five-on-five game. Now, you never know, sometimes you think it’s going to be one way and it’s not, so you don’t plan any different … That’s a strong part of our game. I can’t tell you we’re dominating in that area, but I think that’s been what’s keeping us on the winning side.”
After finishing last in the conference a season ago, the Broncos have taken to first-year head coach Jeff Blashill’s defensive style and benefited from hot goaltending from both Jerry Kuhn and Nick Pisellini to vault into fourth place in the conference — eight points behind Michigan.
“It’s going to be a dogfight,” senior defenseman Chad Langlais said. “There’s going to be battles all over the ice. They’re a frustrating team defensively and we are too. So it’s going to be a tough weekend.”
Both teams are in the top 10 nationally in goals against and both are fighting for an at-large bid.
Michigan’s first ticket is for admission to the tournament on Selection Sunday. The selection committee relies heavily on the PairWise Rankings to select the 16-team field. The Wolverines are currently on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, tied for ninth in the PairWise rankings.
Western Michigan (9-6-9-5 CCHA, 15-7-10 overall) is in a much more uneasy position, tied for 15th. With both teams fighting for at-large consideration, a sweep either way will likely put the loser on the outside looking in.
Defensive-minded hockey in a loser-goes-home series? This isn’t a playoff dress rehearsal, this is the matinee.
“Every weekend we’re playing in big games,” Berenson said. “It doesn’t matter who we’re playing now. It’s how we’re playing. It matters in that it will make our team even more aware that Western’s a good team now. They’re not coming in a last place team any more. They could finish ahead of us.”
Michigan’s other ticket is simply to nowhere. The Wolverines (16-7-10, 19-9-4) are just one point away from ensuring themselves the home-ice advantage in the second round of the CCHA playoffs. They have already guaranteed themselves a first-round bye.
“You want to finish as high as you can and you want to have home ice in the playoffs,” Berenson said. “That’s huge. That’s one of our goals. That’s not the only goal.”
The final goal is obviously the national championship. But reaching the Frozen Four in St. Paul may hinge on this weekend at Yost. With two losses, the only way into the Xcel Energy Center for April’s Frozen Four would probably be to buy a ticket.