Despite being swept by Notre Dame last weekend, and on the season for that matter, the Michigan Wolverines (25-9-1) are ranked No. 4/5 in the country and are the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten Tournament set to begin tonight in Ann Arbor.
Opposing the Wolverines in the quarterfinals is an all too familiar foe: the Michigan State Spartans (12-21-1) who have struggled down the stretch of the regular season. Before winning their season finale against Penn State, the Spartans had lost 13 games in a row.
In the four games between the Wolverines and Spartans this year, Michigan has won all four by a combined score of 23-9 with only one game being decided by less than four goals. Overall, the Wolverines have won nine of the last 10 games against the Spartans.
Michigan State will get a welcomed boost this time against the Wolverines with the return of senior forward Mitch Lewandowski (seven goals, 12 assists). He had never missed a game in his career until missing 15 this season. The fifth-year senior returned to the team for the final four contests of the regular season.
Lewandowski ranks eighth among active Division I players in career points (121), sixth in goals (56), ninth in game-winners (12) and ninth in power play goals (20).
While the return of Lewandowski will help ease the burden of talented Spartan goaltender Drew DeRidder, the biggest opponent facing the Wolverines are the questions that arose during last week’s series against Notre Dame.
Question 1: Can Erik Portillo regain his form in the postseason?
The sophomore goaltender displayed some of his best and worst hockey during last weekend’s series against Notre Dame. In the first game, he uncharacteristically misplayed a puck behind the net resulting in a goal and in both games, Portillo gave up big rebounds only to be swatted home by Irish players.
In the Big Ten and NCAA Tournament, Portillo cannot afford to make these mistakes and allow second and third chances to opportunistic offenses. However, Portillo is a .926 goalie with a 2.14 goals-against-average and ranks third nationally in saves and wins. If a goalie is capable of rectifying these miscues and mitigating timely mistakes in the future, it is the Super Swede.
Question 2: Can the Wolverines solve their chemistry issues before the NCAA Tournament?
Fans and teammates alike rejoiced with the return of the four Olympic athletes: Matty Beniers (17 goals, 20 assists), Bredan Brisson (17 goals, 16 assists), Kent Johnson (6 goals, 24 assists) and Owen Power (3 goals, 24 assists). Unfortunately, most did not anticipate the chemistry issues of reinserting these four into the game after more than a month away from the team.
In a sport reliant on chemistry and feel, Michigan cannot afford its four best players to look as comfortable as Pete Davidson at a Kanye West concert. In the first game against Notre Dame, these four looked stuck in the ice, unable to gain a feel for their fellow Wolverines.
Fortunately by the second game, the quartet looked slightly more comfortable and three of them accounted for a point on Michigan’s lone goal of the contest. Can they continue to progress, regain their pre-Olympic mojo, and maintain that through both postseason tournaments though?
The best teams rely on their best players in the biggest games and Michigan will need these four to be at the peak of their powers if the Wolverines are going to challenge for a Big Ten or National Title.
Question 3: Can Luke Hughes be consistent down the stretch?
Record-breaking freshman sensation Luke Hughes (16 goals, 16 assists) has been phenomenal this season with highlight reel goals and beautiful point work on the power play. However, one knock on the young defenseman would be his up-and-down point production and tendency to disappear on the ice.
Check out his stat sheet. Hughes can score in four straight games as easily as posting a blank on the stat sheet in three straight. In a tournament format, the Wolverines will not be able to overcome his untimely sporadic play, especially when his offensive prowess is what separates him most defensemen.
Hopefully coming off a zero point series against Notre Dame means Hughes is ready to explode down the stretch.
The Wolverines will not have definitive answers to all these questions after the weekend, but we’ll have a better idea where to set the panic meter by Sunday evening.
Around the Big Ten
No. 1 Minnesota — BYE
No. 3 Notre Dame vs. No. 6 Wisconsin
No. 4 Ohio State vs. No. 5 Penn State
If Michigan can handle Sparty for the fifth and sixth times this season, it will get one more crack at the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
How to watch
Friday (3/4): 7 p.m., Yost Ice Arena
Saturday (3/5): 7 p.m., Yost Ice Arena
Watch: Bally Sports Detroit
Sunday (3/6): 7 p.m., Yost Ice Arena (IF NECESSARY)