Following an interminable hiatus - Michigan has played only two games since Jan. 1 - the U-M hockey team will finally hit the ice again when it takes on rival Michigan State Thursday at Joe Louis Arena. The Wolverines will feature a few new lines too.
News: Michigan has juggled its lines in preparation for this weekend's action, including a new No. 1 line featuring sophomore Andrew Copp at center with sophomore Boo Nieves on the left wing and junior Phil Di Giuseppe on the right wing.
Head coach Red Berenson: "I think this will give Boo a fresh start, playing with someone he has played a lot with - he played with Phillip most of last year - and Copp is playing with a lot of confidence and I think he'll be good on that line.
"We want to get Boo going. We've seen glimpses of his potential this year but not on a consistent basis. I'd like to see him do what he's good at. He has good speed. And he can make good plays, and he can shoot the puck, and we have to get him doing those three things better. Hopefully this will be good for Boo and Philip, to get them going, and then hopefully good for our team."
Views: This is perhaps Berenson's last hope for putting the charge into Nieves' and Di Giuseppe's games that has to exist for this team to realize its second-half potential. Nieves is a player with immense physical skill but one goal and seven assists in 17 games simply is not cutting it. Not for someone that could be leading this team in scoring.
Di Giuseppe is also struggling, though not as severely, with four goals and nine assists.
Both players skate hard and compete on both ends of the ice, but they have been unable to finish quality scoring chances. Pairing them with Copp, who has enjoyed a recent stretch of puck luck with six goals in his last seven games and who is also the hardest-working forward on the team, could be the good fortune Nieves and Di Giuseppe so badly need to break them out of scoring slumps.
News: Michigan has played only four games in the last 41 days and U-M may try to tweak the non-conference schedule next season to avoid such a scenario.
Berenson: "There is only one week I would change. The first week in January we would not change that open date because we always lose a player or two to the World Juniors so we keep that weekend open intentionally, but after Wisconsin, we wouldn't want to be open."
Views: The Big Ten announced its 2013-14 league schedule back in May, and two weeks later Michigan announced its entire slate. The schools and conference work in tandem together and in the future, U-M will do its best to avoid so many start and stops in the second half.
Among its 14 non-conference games, Michigan is locked into two at the Great Lakes Invitational after Christmas, but it can play around with its other 12 contests, and while the Maize and Blue are excited to get their season going in early October and to front-load their games, they will likely try to move two games to January to avoid a similar break next year.
News: Michigan meets rival Michigan State Thursday in a two-game series with Big Ten implications. The Wolverines are also looking for some revenge after losing 3-0 to the Spartans Dec. 28. On that day, U-M entered play 10-3-2 and MSU was 5-9-2, however, Berenson dismissed the idea that his team was significantly better.
In the three weeks since, State has gone 2-1-1.
Berenson: "I can't tell you we're better on paper. The only thing that was better on paper when we played the GLI was our record. But as far as anything else - the power play, penalty killing, goals against, goals for, you can pick and choose between the teams. They've improved. We knew they would be a better team this year, and we knew we had to be better.
"They're ahead of us in the standings. We have two games in hand but they have 10 points and we have six. These are three-point games, and one weekend can be huge."
Views: While there is no sure thing in hockey, especially when these two bitter rivals get together (and with both games occurring away from Ann Arbor), but Michigan has to have the sweep this weekend if it is to have any chance of winning the Big Ten.
Minnesota has already accumulated 22 points, going 7-0-1 in league play and while they have played four more games than Michigan, worth 12 points, the Gophers will separate from the pack quickly if the Wolverines continue to lose games it should win. Not that U-M should have swept Wisconsin two weeks ago, but it needed a split and walked away empty handed.
Michigan State is playing better of late, but if the Wolverines play their best hockey this week, they should win both games.
News: Michigan has not decided which goalie will start Thursday and if both goalies will play this weekend. That had been the norm for the better part of six weeks but Berenson started rookie Zach Nagelvoort in both UW contests Jan. 10-11.
Berenson: "I can't tell you we've talked about who our starting goalie is and it's been a point of contention. I'll decide tomorrow afternoon before practice. I'll tell the goalie.
"I won't have a plan for both games. If one goalie takes off, and he proves he can help us win every night, and becomes our starting goalie … that's never in stone but it could be for a stretch.
"Like last year at the end of the year, there is no question that Steve Racine was our starting goalie he ran with it and good for him. Nagelvoort has had a taste of that. I can't tell you he ran with it. We'll have to wait and see. I wish we had one that was playing every game, and that was it. But that's not the way it is."
Views: Berenson is a one-goalie coach and while it appeared Nagelvoort was going to seize the job, he's looked very mortal in his last three games, going 0-3-0 with a 3.33 goals against average and an .896 save percentage. Those numbers aren't all on him - his defense has been suspect and has sold him out on a few of those goals - but he has also allowed a soft marker or two and has not played at the elite level he achieved earlier in the season.
This decision could go either way this week. And the feeling is, if Michigan wins Thursday, it will stick with the same netminder for Friday. If it loses the first game, we'll see a different goalie the second night. Either way, U-M needs improved production from its goaltender to help get this team back on track.