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Preview: Spartans, Wolverines to clash in pivotal Big Ten series

February 10, 2023
<p>Sophomore forward Jesse Tucker (16) wins the puck against University of Michigan sophomore forward Mackie Samoskevich (11) during a game against the University of Michigan at Munn Ice Arena on Dec. 9, 2022. The Spartans defeated the Wolverines 2-1. </p>

Sophomore forward Jesse Tucker (16) wins the puck against University of Michigan sophomore forward Mackie Samoskevich (11) during a game against the University of Michigan at Munn Ice Arena on Dec. 9, 2022. The Spartans defeated the Wolverines 2-1.

There are just four games remaining in Michigan State’s regular season schedule, each of which is important for the Spartans’ postseason aspirations. Four teams are currently tied for second place in the Big Ten with 30 points, leaving the margins slim in the battle for home ice advantage.

No. 15 Michigan State and No. 5 Michigan will add two more chapters to the most-played rivalry in college hockey this weekend, clashing Friday night in East Lansing and Saturday night in Detroit at Little Caeser’s Arena for the “Duel in the D.”

Unlike last year when the two teams renewed the “Duel in the D” with a withering Michigan State team that fell 7-3, the Spartans present a reenergized group that has positioned itself in contention for a potential NCAA Tournament bid. Both teams are a part of the four-way tie, though Michigan has two more games remaining than MSU. 

MSU did all it could last weekend in a crucial sweep, with six points taken from Notre Dame at Munn Ice Arena. Graduate transfer goaltender Dylan St. Cyr was spectacular both nights, shutting out his former team on Friday, then making 33 saves while allowing two goals Saturday night. The effort earned St. Cyr his third Big Ten First Star of The Week award of the season and placed him in ninth place as of Monday in the fan returns for the Hobey Baker Award. 

Playing Friday night’s game at home could be a huge edge for the Spartans, who are 11-4-1 at Munn Ice Arena, reaching double-digit victories on home ice for the first time since the 2011-12 season. A win on Friday would result in No. 1 Minnesota being the only Big Ten foe to defeat MSU in East Lansing. 

It’s especially important heading into Detroit, a town that hasn’t been friendly for the Spartans. The Wolverines have won the Iron D trophy five consecutive times — MSU hasn't won the inaugural trophy game since 2016. 

“Growing up playing at the U.S. Program, all of those guys growing up wanted to go to Michigan and that was never the case for me,” senior forward Erik Middendorf said. “When I was in Plymouth at the USA program, I was always kind of a Michigan State fan – even though I wasn't committed here – just because of the blue collar and the underdog mentality and just how those Michigan guys treat Michigan State.”

The Spartans defeated Michigan 2-1 in East Lansing in December before falling 2-1 the following night in Ann Arbor. Freshman forward Tiernan Shoudy scored the ultimate game-winner for MSU, while Middendorf missed the Saturday game when he came down with the flu.

Scouting the opponent

One glaring omission from that last meeting, however, was Michigan star forward Adam Fantilli, a projected top pick in the upcoming NHL Draft, who was fulfilling duties for Team Canada in the World Junior Championship. 

The freshman has played in just 24 games this season, but leads the country in points (45) on 17 goals and 28 assists. Since returning back to the Wolverines Jan. 13, he has points in eight consecutive games, including two games with four points and another game with three points. 

Middendorf was teammates with Fantilli on the USHL’s Chicago Steel in 2020-21, where Fantilli won the USHL Playoffs MVP at just 16-years old. Michigan forwards Mackie Samoskevich and Fantilli’s older brother, Luca, were also on that team. 

“He's a generational player,” Middendorf said of Fantilli. “He's really good, really big, physical. I think he had a full beard when he was 16 in Chicago and I was a 20-year old.”

Fantilli’s return to Michigan has coincided with a run where the Wolverines have picked up Big Ten points in seven straight games. Michigan has also won five games in a row, including a 5-4 overtime win at Minnesota. 

The Wolverines have been able to overcome iffy goaltending from junior Erik Portillo – who sports a 3.08 goals against average and .908 save percentage – with a powerful offense that’s tied for second in the country with Boston University and Minnesota, scoring 4.1 goals per game. Including Fantilli, the Wolverines have five skaters with double-digit goals: Samoskevich, sophomore forward Dylan Duke and freshmen forwards T.J. Hughes and Rutger McGroarty. 

Michigan’s power play is also extremely dangerous, converting at a 24.6% clip, good for eighth best in the country and second best in the Big Ten. The Spartans have committed a five-minute major penalty in three straight games, though a once feeble penalty kill has surrendered just one power-play goal in the last three games. 

“One thing I really like again, I think our bench has poise and no one panics,” MSU Head Coach Adam Nightingale said. “If the ref makes that decision then we’ll go and kill it off.”

The puck drops Friday night at 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday night. Friday’s game will be televised on Bally Sports Detroit Extra, while Saturday’s game in Detroit will be televised on ESPNU.

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