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January 31, 2014

Hockey finally returns to Yost, for series with Wisconsin

The meat of Michigan's Big Ten schedule remains but in today's college hockey world, the Wolverines' two-game set vs. Wisconsin becomes critical if U-M is to have any chance to win the conference title in year one.

"When you were playing almost 30 games [28] in the CCHA one bad weekend didn't really cost you, but in the Big Ten we only play 20 games so every game matters," junior centerman Travis Lynch said.

It would be silly to say the Maize and Blue are already out of the hunt for the league crown, but trailing Minnesota (7-0-1, 22 points) by 10 points, U-M (4-2-0, 12 points) cannot afford to split with the Badgers this weekend, especially considering UW already swept Michigan Jan. 10-11.

"With so few of games, you're probably not going to win the Big Ten if you go 1-3 or worse against the best teams in the league," junior forward Zach Hyman said.

And Wisconsin (5-3-0, 15 points and ranked No. 9) is one of the better teams in the conference. The Badgers are not as dominant as No. 1 Minnesota, but they currently stand between the 12th-ranked Wolverines and the six points Michigan needs to truly re-enter this race.

"Minnesota is up there and even though we still play them four times, we're already trying to catch up and so these games are huge," Lynch said.

In this first iteration of the Big Ten Conference, the separation between the top tier (Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin) and the bottom tier (Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State) is significant. The Gophers (18-2-4), Wolverines (12-6-2) and Badgers (14-7-1) all have winning records and rank in the top 12 nationally.

The Spartans (8-12-3), Nittany Lions (4-15-1) and Buckeyes (12-9-1) are a combined 4-15-3 in league play, going 1-12-1 against the upper tier, with OSU the lone team to beat Minnesota, Michigan or Wisconsin so far.

In other words, the top three are destined to feast on the bottom three this year, and so the head-to-head matchups between Michigan and Minnesota, and Michigan and Wisconsin (and then Minnesota and Wisconsin) will decide this battle.

"To get two wins and get back into the race with the season being so short is really big," Hyman said. "Since we lost the first two to Wisconsin, the only way to get even is to win the next two."

The Maize and Blue are thankful to be back at Yost following a 50-day layoff between home games. That is not a misprint - U-M spent 50 days away from contests in Ann Arbor. Of course, it's not like the Wolverines played 10-12 straight road games either, participating in three contests at neutral-site hosts and then three on the road.

This stretch - six games in 6.5 weeks - was unlike anything they could have prepared for, but now that it is in the rearview mirror, and Michigan will play 14 games in seven weeks, the Wolverines feel they are better for their unusual experience.

"We know what it's like to have a rough patch and we can use that as we go forward this season," Lynch said.

"I think something we learned is that you can't waste the time you had. When we weren't playing, maybe we didn't bring the intensity in practice we needed and we weren't sharp when we did play, but then we learned from that and before we played State last weekend we made sure to have two great weeks of practice."

Michigan swept the Spartans, beating MSU 2-1 and 5-2 last weekend, re-establishing momentum and giving fans double reason to get excited when the puck drops tonight at 6:30 pm (Big Ten Network).



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