No. 10 Michigan travels to No. 2 Minnesota this weekend for a critical series as the Wolverines chase the Golden Gophers for the Big Ten title. They will be shorthanded, however, head coach Red Berenson announced.
News: Junior forward Alex Guptill will likely miss the series with a shoulder injury. Guptill is third on the team in goals (eight), assists (nine) and points (17).
Berenson: "It doesn't look like Guptill will be available. We'll lose one of our top scorers for this weekend. I hope it's short term."
Views: For a team that has had trouble scoring this season - U-M was shutout un a 4-0 loss to Penn State Feb. 8 and is averaging only 2.88 goals per game this year - this is obviously bad news. Guptill is a talented offensive player with a terrific shot and strong instincts around the net. He averages 4.1 shots per game, creating offense for the Wolverines even when he's not scoring.
Sure, Guptill has been inconsistent this season and can cause a few groans because of his penchant for taking shifts off, but at the end of the day, losing a big, 6-3, left-winger that loves to, and knows how to, score goals is going to hurt the Maize and Blue, especially because there are enough other forwards underachieving this season, and U-M cannot afford to be handicapped this particular weekend.
On a bit of good news, though, Berenson said freshman defenseman Kevin Lohan could be back as early as next week after missing the last 17 games with a knee injury.
"I think his return is a lot closer now. I don't think he'll play this weekend but I'll leave it up after that. I hope next week we can talk about him [potentially playing]."
News: Freshman goalie Zach Nagelvoort allowed three goals on nine shots in the loss to PSU and is no longer a lock to remain the starting goalie going into the series in Minneapolis. In relief, sophomore Steve Racine stopped 30 of 31 shots faced.
Berenson: "Zach has played really well and then all of a sudden, he has a stinker, and that can happen. That happens to the best of goalies. I watch them every night in the NHL.
"I like the way Steve responded. He jumped in. We still had a chance to win that game if we could get one goal, and another one and get the momentum turned, but it didn't happen. But he gave us a chance.
"We'll figure out on Thursday who we want to start on Friday. But I don't think we're going to overthink it. We do this every week anyway."
Views: Nagelvoort has started eight straight games, and had gone 4-2-1 in the previous seven, with a 2.29 goals against average and a .928 save percentage before disaster struck.
The first two goals he allowed in the loss were as soft as they come, slipping between him and the near post as shots came in from poor angles along the end line. Those markers were uncharacteristic for the way the freshman has played, but they're a concern, and almost certainly put Racine back in play for this weekend.
It would not be a surprise to see both goalies earn a start, with Nagelvoort likely going Friday and Racine Saturday unless Michigan posts a shutout on opening night. But Berenson has a history of throwing his goalies right back in the fire after a bad outing so they don't end up thinking about it too long, and he seems convinced, based on his comments earlier this week, that the performance was an aberration and not a trend for his rookie.
News: Michigan allowed 76 shots to Penn State, and was outshot in both games in State College. U-M has surrendered 33.0 shots per game this season and Berenson is not happy.
Berenson: "I can't tell you we gave up many grade-A scoring chances but we give up the real estate around the net too easily. We let players get there and they get on top of our goalie too easy, and shots got through too easy. We were just too easy to play against defensively."
Views: Outside of senior Mac Bennett, Michigan is simply not receiving the same consistent effort night after night from the rest of its blue line. Senior Kevin Clare has been good but still makes too many puck-handling and decision mistakes that create second-chances for U-M's opponents, while rookies Nolan DeJong and Michael Downing have been up and down.
Senior Andrew Sinelli has actually been consistent but he's not an overwhelming presence at 5-10, 182. Meanwhile juniors Brennan Serville and Mike Chiasson are fighting for playing time instead of emerging as veteran, dependable defenders.
Consistency is missing across the board, and the Wolverines' lack of size and ferociousness on the blue line - there is no Greg Pateryn or Mike Komisarek type on this team - is giving opponents free reign in front of the net. Though Berenson won't allow that excuse.
"If I don't want you to get to the front of the net, I don't care how big you are, you're not going to get there if I just stand in your way," he said. "Just make sure I'm boxing you out so you can't screen our goalie. You don't have to be big to do that, you have to play big.
"We have to play smarter, be in better position. We have to know what our responsibilities are. We're making little mistakes that we show every Monday on video, and working every week to get better; we have to get better for Minnesota."
News: This weekend's games give the Big Ten a chance to show off its two premier programs.
Berenson: "I said from day one it's fine to have the Big Ten, but we have to earn that respect. When you see the poll every Monday, if you don't see any big ten teams in the top 10 then we're not living up to that. If we think we're one of the top conferences in college hockey then we need our top programs to be there. I am not surprised Minnesota is there, Wisconsin or Michigan. That's the way it should be."
Views: This week's USCHO.com Top 20 has three Big Ten teams in the top 10, three Hockey East programs, two from the ECAC, one from the WCHA and one from the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
With its tradition - the league has won 23 of 66 national titles and the six teams have a combined 66 Frozen Four appearances and 126 NCAA Tournament bids - money, power and marketing, the Big Ten was expected to cause a titanic shift in the college hockey landscape (which it did) and was expected to become the elite league.
But for all its accolades, the Big Ten has not won a NCAA title since 2007 (Michigan State), with Wisconsin and Michigan placing runner-up in 2010-11, respectively. In today's sports world, a conference is only as good as what it has done lately, and the Big Ten isn't considered what it once was.
For the league to reign supreme again, it needs its three giants - Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin - to lead the way, and for the proud Spartan program to resurrect.
The league can't win anything when the Gophers and Wolverines meet but it is an opportunity to showcase two of the Big Ten's best.