Michigan reacquaints itself with Minnesota this weekend for the first time in three seasons, and the stakes could not be higher.
In its bid to win the first Big Ten Championship, U-M trails the Golden Gophers by six points (each win is worth three) with 10 games remaining in the season.
Had the Wolverines done what they should have last weekend, and swept Penn State, they would be three back of Minnesota with two games in hand. But Michigan fell 4-0 Feb. 8 and might need to go 3-1 in four remaining contests against the Maroon and Gold.
"We should have come out of our series against Penn State with two wins, and it sort of put us in a hole, but we have four games with Minnesota and we know that we control our own destiny," sophomore center Boo Nieves.
Michigan does in fact control its own fate, and even if the Wolverines split with the Golden Gophers over their next four (two in Minneapolis this weekend and two in Ann Arbor March 14-15), they could tie for a Big Ten title if they sweep their other six games against Ohio State (home and home), Michigan State (home and home) and Penn State (home).
First things first, though, and that's earning at least a split with the high-powered Gophers; Minnesota ranks seventh nationally and first in the Big Ten with 3.46 goals per game.
"They're the best offensive team in the country, in my opinion from watching numerous games this week," associate head coach Billy Powers said. "All three of their top lines have more goals than our top line.
"Anytime you go in and play Minnesota in their barn, it's huge that we are dialed in to how we're going to play without the puck. They can put on a show if you allow them to."
Michigan ranks 10th nationally and first in the Big Ten in scoring defense, allowing just 2.33 goals per contest, but U-M is allowing 32.9 shots per game, surrendering 76 to the Nittany Lions.
"With Penn State, they shoot from everywhere so it's not really the number of shots we're giving up but we did give them too many good chances," senior forward Derek DeBlois said. "It was too easy for them to get to our net and to put quality chances on net."
Michigan's coaches have been stressing defensive-zone coverage for more than two months now, concerned that the Wolverines' blue liners have been vulnerable with the puck in their own zone, creating far too many second-chance opportunities for opponents.
"A big part of D-Zone, and this sounds simple, is what you try to do within the framework of your system is spend the least amount of time in the defensive zone," Powers said. "We're not killing a penalty when we're 5-on-5 but we see our team in a penalty-kill mode where we're a little too passive and not engaging. What we're promoting is to be more aggressive.
"The first guy on the puck, no hesitation to try and tie the guy up, get stick on puck, second guy be ready to jump in with an aggressive mode.
"If you give teams time in your zone, they will find a way to get chances and shots, and then it's high risk. We're trying to get our team to just be engaged and aggressive."
Though it is not slumping, Michigan isn't hitting the back of the net consistently still, averaging 3.17 goals in its last six games but that includes a seven-goal outburst. The Maize and Blue know they cannot afford to get into two high-scoring affairs with the Gophers.
"We're not going to be successful if we have to score four or five goals to win," DeBlois said. "The strength of our team all year has been our defense and our goalies, and then we've been opportunistic offensively, and we need to play that game this weekend."
Michigan and Minnesota are two of the premier programs in college hockey and are expected to be the face of the Big Ten. The rivals have not engaged in a two-game series since being WCHA foes in Nov. 1991, playing just 24 games since with each winning 12. It is time for the rivalry to be renewed.
"The games between us are going to be right up there with the most meaningful we play," DeBlois said. "Every year they're a great team and we haven't played them in awhile but there will be some bad blood because we're both trying to be the best team in the conference.
"We have four games against these guys, they're sitting atop the Big Ten and in order for us to be at the top, we have to beat them. They don't want to give up the lead and we want it so we're both going to be motivated."