The No. 8 ranked Michigan hockey team will face a familiar foe this weekend when they battle rival Michigan State for the last time during the regular season. The Wolverines defeated the Spartans three times during December, twice in CCHA action (won 6-1 and 5-3) and a dominating 5-1 victory in the Great Lakes Invitational championship game.
Last week: The Wolverines are looking to rebound after a disappointing split with last place Bowling Green. The Falcons walked into Yost Ice Arena last Friday and stunned the Wolverine faithful with a 3-0 blanking, in which there wasn't much good from a U-M perspective. They bounced back the following night at Bowling Green with a 1-0 shutout, but certainly had to work for that lone goal as they put another 39 shots on net while going 0-for-8 on the power play.
One person who didn't see much work Saturday was senior goaltender Billy Sauer, who made all 19 saves in his first start since November 29 against Wisconsin and picked up his first victory since October 31 against Ohio State. Sauer got the nod after sophomore goalie Bryan Hogan struggled in Friday's loss.
It has been a rough road for Sauer this season as he entered the season after setting U-M's single season record for lowest goals against average, but his stumble in the Frozen Four against Notre Dame is what most remember him for. He and Hogan started out this season splitting time in net and a trend soon developed in which the team not only wasn't winning with Sauer in net, but wasn't scoring, either. In the nine games Sauer has started this season, the Wolverines have only scored 11 goals (1.22 per game), compared to scoring 68 goals in Hogan's 15 games (4.53 per game). That's quite a contrast! Though no fault of his own, Billy lost his role in the rotation following a 3-0 loss to Wisconsin at the end of November, and even though the offense only gave him on goal Saturday, it was great to see him come out with the shutout victory.
U-M head coach Red Berenson stated earlier this week that Hogan remains their No. 1 goaltender and will start the bulk of the games as long as he continues to play well, but the door is certainly still open for Sauer should Hogan begin to faulter.
Though it was good to end the weekend with a win, Michigan lost out on two critical points in the CCHA standings, where they currently sit in 6th place. U-M is two points behind Ohio State and Nebraska-Omaha, with no games in hand on the Buckeyes and two in the bag on UNO. They are five points behind Miami and Alaska, with a pair in hand on Miami and four games in hand on the Nanooks. And they are 12 points behind first place Notre Dame with pretty much no chance of catching the Irish.
The top four teams in the CCHA get a first round bye in the conference tournament, and while they are within striking range of accomplishing that, the two points they lost out on to Bowling Green certainly would have made the things a bit more comfortable moving forward. After Michigan State, the Wolverines still have weekend series with Notre Dame, LSSU, Nebraska-Omaha, Ohio State, and Ferris State.
Little Brother: The Spartans are having their own "Michigan football" type of year. Known for always being one of the top teams in the CCHA, Michigan State sports a 7-14-3 overall record and finds themselves in 9th place in the CCHA, just one point ahead of a three way tie for last place.
Despite this, I know people always say polls don't mean anything, but this year they are certainly proving that as somehow the Spartans still managed to receive six points in the latest U.S. College Hockey Online/CBS College Sports poll and two points in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll. Seriously, whoever voted for them should have their rights taken away.
On top of losing several top players from last year's team, the Spartans suffered four more losses in December. A.J. Sturgis (injuries from MSU hockey-football fight) and Nick Sucharski (shoulder) are out for the season, while Ryan Turek was dismissed from the team and Mike Merrifield headed back to junior hockey for more seasoning.
This weekend: So this weekend's games against another bottom tier team (and it's not often you get to say that about the Spartans in hockey) are critical for the Wolverines to keep pace with the teams ahead of them and even make up a little ground. The other series to keep an eye on is Miami at Nebraska-Omaha, as both teams are ahead of the Wolverines and them beating up each other can help U-M.
Michigan will get an added boost with the return of junior defensive captain Chris Summers and sophomore forward Matt Rust. Summers took a hard hit 23 seconds into Saturday's game and left a few shifts later due to dizziness and minor pain. He sat out a few days of practice and passed all concussion tests. Rust missed the game due to the flu.
Friday night's game takes place at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. The puck drops at 7:35 p.m and it can be seen on Fox Sports Net Plus.
Saturday's game is at Yost Ice Arena in Ann Arbor and will be broadcast by Fox Sports Detroit.
For anyone attending Saturday's game, keep in mind that there is a home basketball game Saturday night at 8 p.m., so arrive a bit early if you can to avoid parking issues. MGoBlue.com suggests parking at the Elbel Field lot as an alternative. It was bad scheduling on someone's part as I know they typically try to avoid home games between two of their bigger sports overlapping each other.
And if you are going to the basketball game, give a little round of applause to former Wolverine hockey great Bill MacFarland, who will be among the six member class inducted into the Hall of Honor and publicly honored during half time of the b-ball game.