The third-ranked Michigan hockey team is scheduled to welcome No. 4 Ferris State to Ann Arbor Wednesday for a showdown of top-five teams, and to win, the Wolverines could use a boost from underachieving forward Boo Nieves.
News: A 2012 second-round NHL Draft pick and a 29-point producer in 2013, Nieves is one of the most talented forwards on the team. However, this season, he has just one goal and seven assists in 13 games.
Coach Red Berenson: "I've been talking to him. Just getting his mind focused. He's one of those players that is a pass-first player and we have to get him focused more on shooting more, going to the net and hitting the net. He gets as many shots as anyone but he misses the net more than anyone. He has to bear down and shoot to score. I make it clear to him if you're in scoring position, shoot to score."
Views: Nieves has too much ability to be producing so little. Last year, he only had eight goals among his 29 points but did enjoy a four-goal outburst in a three-game stretch. Nieves is unbelievably skilled. He's probably the fastest and smoothest skater on the team, and he showed in the final month of his freshman season a second gear and an understanding that when he crashes the net, good things tend to happen.
He was a pick to be a breakout player as a sophomore, capable of 15 goals and 25 assists, but we just haven't seen him unleash his torrent abilities, with rare exceptions.
Berenson is a master motivator and knows a thing or two about scoring goals, and usually when he puts an emphasis on specific part of a player's game there is a tangible result thanks to a greater sense of urgency. Hopefully in the case of Nieves, that happens and he finds the scoring confidence to remain a threat the rest of the year.
News: Ferris will be the fifth ranked team (at the time of the matchup) Michigan has faced in 14 games this season, and the highest ranked since U-M opened the season against then-No. 4 (and now No. 6) Boston College.
In the current USCHO.com top 20, U-M has faced BC, No. 9 UMass-Lowell, and No. 19 Nebraska-Omaha, and will face No. 2 Minnesota and No. 15 Wisconsin down the road.
Berenson: "Every week we've had a real good team. We've been through this and at the same time we need to realize there is not a second game. It's the only game and the last game of the first half. This is a showdown game."
Views: The fans have been the beneficiary of so many incredible matchups, seeing all three Boston schools - BC, BU and UMass-Lowell - in Ann Arbor, and now they are being treated to another top-five meeting. That was the intention when Michigan's staff put together this schedule, and is the byproduct of a Big Ten campaign of only 20 league games that allows for 14 non-conference opportunities.
"I don't know if our schedule will help us in recruiting but I think it will because we can play the eastern schools and the western schools," Berenson said. "We can create a good schedule that might help us in the RPI. And I think it's good for the fans. I bet already they're saying, 'This is the best schedule we've seen' and we haven't even played a Big Ten opponent. It speaks for itself."
It is the best non-conference schedule I've covered in 12 years and will almost assuredly be the best schedule overall when all is said and done.
News: Michigan reached out to former CCHA foes Miami (Ohio), Bowling Green and Notre Dame about scheduling a game this season but only Ferris State took U-M up on it.
Berenson: "There is a good relationship with [FSU coach] Bob Daniels, and he was interested in coming here. Some schools aren't, and then it was timing. Who has availability?
"Ferris has had an interesting schedule. They played two games at Northern Michigan two weeks ago. Two games at Lake State this past weekend, and then they were willing to come here Wednesday and they play at Michigan State Saturday. This is a team that is willing to play anywhere."
Views: While the scheduling opportunities are more exciting in this new age of Big Ten hockey, there will also be challenges. Few teams will want to commit to a one-and-done matchup, insisting on either a home-and-home or future games at their rink, and because Michigan's staff has respect for the game and for other programs, it will grant some concessions.
For instance, U-M will eventually play two games at Michigan Tech after the Huskies played two at Yost this season and will play two more in Ann Arbor.
Michigan has the clout and makes more money playing at home so there is incentive not to offer a straight one-and-one unless it's a marquee opponent like New Hampshire, the Boston schools, or western foes like North Dakota, Denver and Colorado College. A school like Bowling Green, however, is living in fantasyland if it thinks it will be treated the same.
So that will be a challenge in future years. Some schools will be willing to play at U-M for a one- or two-game series without an equal response from Michigan, and some won't.
News: Junior defenseman Brennan Serville will be back in the lineup officially for Wednesday's game. Serville has missed two games due to injury. He will take the place of classmate Mike Chiasson while junior Andrew Sinelli - a converted forward -- remains in the lineup.
Berenson: "Serville gives us a little size on defense. He has a smart stick defensively. He's a good penalty killer. He's a player with some potential that we still haven't gotten out of him.
"Chiasson has been a really good utility player but he hasn't proven he can play game after game and play consistent."
Views: The bigger surprise is not that Serville is in for Chiasson - he's always had more upside than his classmate - but that Sinelli remains in the lineup instead of Chiasson.
Sinelli has looked decent enough in two games on the blue line and, according to the coaches, has more potential to improve and become a strong defensive player. But the No. 5 and No. 6 spots have not been locked down yet completely so expect more jockeying as we go along.