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Michigan hockey looking to get back on track against Niagara

The Wolverines have a two-game home series on the horizon.

COLLEGE HOCKEY: FEB 22 Notre Dame at Michigan Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After a disappointing weekend that saw Michigan get swept by fellow Big Ten rival Notre Dame and drop from No. 1 to No. 4 in the USCHO rankings the Wolverines (10-4-0) look to rebound this weekend against Niagara University in a non-conference matchup. The Purple Eagles are coming off a weekend spilt with Army which saw them win 4-3 in a shootout on Friday night and lose 4-1 the following night.

The Purple Eagles got off to a tough start this year losing five of their first six games, though they have been playing better recently by going 2-2 in their previous four, upgrading their overall record to 2-6-2. They currently sit seventh out of the 10 teams in the Atlantic Hockey Conference.

The Wolverines hold a 9-1 all-time series record against the Purple Eagles. They have only ever played them at a neutral site or at Yost Ice Arena. The last time Niagara made the NCAA Tournament was back in 2013.

Niagara has struggled to score goals this year. They currently average 2.00 goals per game and give up an average of 3.7. Offensively, they are led by juniors Albin Nilsson and Ryan Naumovski, who each have seven points (3 G, 4 A) in 10 games. Following them are forwards Walker Sommer (4 G 1 A) and defenseman Mike Faulkner (1 G, 5 A).

Goaltending and team defense have not been a strong suit of the Purple Eagles, which will play heavily into the offensive firepower of Michigan. Junior Chad Veltri has played in six games with a .888 save percentage and 3.31 goals against average. Meanwhile, backup goalie Jake Sibell has played in four games this year with an .884 save percentage and 3.49 goals against average.

If this game turns into a high scoring affair, it without question favors the Wolverines. Niagara ranks 54th in goals-for. To put that into perspective, there are only five teams in college hockey lower than that, so Niagara will need to muddy this game up into a defensive scenario where it really plays sound team defense in its own zone and protect the home-plate area in front of Sibell and Veltri. They’ll need A+ quality goaltending from each of them because the stats tell us Niagara is going to give up chances; it’s just a matter of if their goalies can make the routine saves from perimeter shooting areas and make a few they’re not supposed to in order to have a chance.

If the Wolverines avoid staying out of the box for long stretches of time like they were unable to against Notre Dame, they should fine. The odd penalty here or there wouldn’t ruin the weekend for them. Niagara ranks 49th in the country on power play efficiency at 12.8%. To have any chance, the Purple Eagles have to capitalize on any Michigan penalties like Notre Dame did last weekend.

Typically, the recipe for success in games like this when your outgunned offensively is staying out of the box, keeping the danger chances to a minimum and scoring on your power play opportunities. Staying out of the box and not giving the Wolverines multiple chances for their No. 1 ranked power play to blow it open is something their coaching staff has been hammering home all week in pre-scout. The Purple Eagles rank 47th as team in penalty kill efficiency, not exactly what you want that number to be coming into a series where you play a team that scores more power play goes then anyone.

Michigan will take control of both games easily if it keeps it to 5-on-5 and play the way it is fully capable of. Niagara will need perfect puck-management from the back end when it comes to breaking out through the neutral and defensive zone. Look for its goaltending to try and be spectacular to steal one of these games.

Puck drop later tonight is set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday’s game starts at 7 p.m. Both games will be streamed live on B1G+.