“They’re a very highly rated team, that’s a challenge,” Cole said. “It’s a rivalry week, that’s a challenge. It’s early in the season, we’re still figuring things out, so that’s a challenge. One thing I might like more than hockey is challenges.”
In their previous series, Michigan trounced Michigan State 9-0 in Ann Arbor for one of the worst losses in program history. The Spartans turned it around the next night to eke out a dramatic 3-2 victory at Munn Ice Arena, a bright spot in an otherwise dismal 2020-21 season.
Among the players, senior defender Christian Krygier said he’s not proud of last year’s blowout loss but intends to remove emotion from the series and approach it as if it’s any other. Senior defender Dennis Cesana added that he’s adopted a similar “business as usual” attitude in the face of a daunting opponent.
“Everyone knows it’s a big weekend for us,” Cesana said. “But as far as just the energy (and) intensity goes, we bring that everyday.”
Earlier this season, Michigan cruised through the first two weeks of October, dominating a strong Lake Superior State team and making two major statements with wins over then-No.1 Minnesota State and No.5 Minnesota Duluth to finish first in the Icebreaker Tournament in Duluth, Minnesota. The Wolverines were deservedly ranked as high as second in the USCHO rankings following such feats.
But as much as such a talented team could stutter, they’ve found a way to do it.
The Wolverines were shocked when current No.10 Western Michigan took the first game of their home-and-home series, 5-2, and had to fend them off in overtime for the 3-2 victory to cap off the series in Ann Arbor. The following weekend, they fell 4-2 to Wisconsin in their second game of the series after the Badgers minimized Michigan’s offensive chances as best as anybody in the Big Ten, leaving them 2-2 in their last 4 games.
Now, after Michigan State football’s 37-33 victory over Michigan poured gasoline on one of the hottest rivalries in all of sports, this weekend’s series is shaping up to be just as intense as any before it.
“Be as close to 100% as you can”
On paper, Michigan has the upper hand offensively: the eighth-ranked scoring offense (3.88 goals per game) and sixth-ranked power-play percentage (30%) in Division I college hockey. On defense, Michigan State garners a slight edge, with a 17th ranked penalty kill percentage (88.5%) and 17th ranked scoring defense (2.25 goals per game).
No doubt the Wolverines have played a tougher schedule and proved themselves against it, giving greater weight to the aforementioned statistics. But the Spartans, namely Cesana and Krygier, are confident they can more than hold their own if they play it smart as an oft-repeated unit of five.
“I think just playing hard and playing as a group of five and being responsible with the puck and in the neutral zone is going to be a big deal for us,” Cesana said. “Limiting our turnovers at the blue line and getting pucks behind their (defense) will be big for us and just playing an overall hard, physical game will bring us success.”
Meanwhile, Krygier stressed doing all the “little stuff” will keep the Spartans in the game more than anything else.
Chief among them: staying stingy on the kill. Getting what Cole called “dirty” goals in front of the net. Generating shots at full strength. And above all, taking care of the puck against a brutal Michigan forecheck.
“You have to have puck maintenance,” Cole said. “Whether you’re carrying it, passing it, chipping it to a teammate or getting it behind their (defense), you have to be very deliberate and do a good job. Be as close to 100% as you can.”
Of the two losses Michigan has this year, Western Michigan and Wisconsin both used a similar blueprint to knock them off. Both teams limited turnovers, clogged their defensive zones and took advantage of Wolverine defensemen's miscues in transition to generate odd-man rushes and greater scoring chances.
It’s a game plan that plays perfectly into Michigan State’s brand of hockey and would greatly assist a five-on-five offense that’s been lacking the past few weekends. Krygier said he’s seen the success there and while the team plans to focus on some aspects provided, he also emphasized doing “some of the stuff we do.”
Junior forward Griffin Loughran issued a similar answer to a Michigan lineup that’s tough to crack.
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“The biggest thing for us is just playing hard, playing physical and playing the way we know how to play more than adjusting to what they have to offer,” Loughran said. “I think that’s the key, sticking to what we have and know what works.”
“Too much respect”
There might not be a single group of underclassmen more acclaimed in college hockey than the current squad in Ann Arbor. Sophomore defenseman Owen Power was the first overall selection in the 2021 NHL Draft, going to the Buffalo Sabres. In the same draft, sophomore centers Matty Beniers and Kent Johnson went second and fifth to the expansion Seattle Kraken and Columbus Blue Jackets respectively.
Freshman defenseman Luke Hughes (fourth overall 2021 NHL Draft), stingy sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo (67th overall, 2021) and sophomore center Brendan Brisson (29th overall, 2020 NHL Draft) round out the younger group of talent. Between the six, they’ve racked up a combined 42 points — just eight shy of Michigan State’s 50 total points on the year.
It’s like taking the ice against a top prospect list and the Spartans know it well enough to not be discouraged. Cesana said he’s aware of the weapons Michigan has but isn’t giving them “too much respect.”
“At the end of the day, we’re all playing on the same ice, draft pick, no draft pick,” he said. “I mean, I’m the only kid from my town that played hockey growing up and I’m gonna be stepping up on the same ice as them. They have talent but we also have talent and we work hard too, so it’s no different.”
While the underclassmen rightfully garner much of the attention, there are more than enough upperclassmen that pose a threat on the ice. Senior defenseman Nick Blankenburg, junior forward Nick Granowicz and fifth-year forward Michael Pastujov are among those that have proven their mettle on a youth-dominated team.
“I think one thing that might be misconstrued about that team is they got some older guys, they got some seniors and some fifth-year guys that do some things that are a big part of the team and aren’t completely lost in the wash,” Cole said.
Krygier said the Wolverines have some “top of the line” players who “do everything right.” Regardless, he sang the same tune as Cesana in regards to matching up against them.
“We’re all good hockey players,” Krygier said. “Obviously, they’re more talented, more high end but we play as a five and it’ll be a good night.”
“A little extra juice”
Yost Ice Arena is one of the most historic arenas in all of college hockey, a bandbox known for being one of the toughest places to play in the Big Ten. No stranger to its intimidating tendencies as a player and coach, Cole said he’s hoping his players, young and old, bring an attitude that thrives in such unforgiving circumstances.
“I always thought it was fun to play in those situations,” Cole said. “I liked the other crowd right on top of you … I particularly liked when you would get booed on the road, that meant you were doing something right.”
Similarly, Cesana noted how the “Children of Yost” will yell anything to get under the Spartan’s skin and tipped his cap to them for their passion.
“It’s definitely a fun time to play there and something you kind of cherish as a memory, as weird as that sounds,” he said.
Loughran, a Northern Michigan transfer, listed off a number of great college hockey rivalries, including Boston College-Boston University, Minnesota-Wisconsin and his old strife, Michigan Tech-Northern Michigan. As new as he is to the team, he’s developed a certain reverence for “the big one” in preparation for his first sold-out crowds at Yost and Munn.
“It’s the biggest college hockey rivalry there is,” he said.
Regardless of the matchup, the arenas and the long history between both programs, Cole still preached a more neutral approach, one his players have adopted.
“It shouldn’t depend on your opponent to get you fired up for the game,” he said. “It’s a privilege and it’s an honor to play hockey for Michigan State and when you put those skates on Friday or Saturday night, I don’t care what team you’re playing. You should be flying, you should be proud. And this just has a little extra juice.”
Michigan State plays Michigan at Yost Ice Arena on Friday and at Munn Ice Arena on Friday and Saturday, respectively. Both games start at 7:30 p.m.
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