Aggression in Ann Arbor

Rivalries propel college sports.

Sure, professional teams have them, too. There’s Yankees-Dodgers or Yankees-Red Sox, or pretty much Yankees-anybody in baseball; the NFL has the Cowboys and the Redskins, or the Vikings and the Packers. Pro hockey has Red Wings vs. Blackhawks, Rangers vs. Islanders, and Alexei Yashin vs. Ottawa Senators management, teammates and fans.

But those rivalries ebb and flow, often dictated by the relative competence of the teams in question. It’s hard to care as much about the game when one team is out of the playoff picture, for instance.

Not in college. Collegiate rivalries are driven by sheer force of will, by the desire to beat the #$*% out of that other school just for the glory of the alma mater. For bragging rights. For mom and apple pie. If it’s for the national championship, great. If one team is unbeaten and the other is scraping to escape the conference cellar, fine.

The game is what matters.

That brings us to the Game of the Week: Saturday in Ann Arbor, Michigan State and Michigan duke it out in an early-season barometer of both teams’ CCHA fortunes.

The rivalry between the Spartans and Wolverines is as storied as any in modern college sports, replete with last-minute rallies, NCAA titles, and all the stuff that helps sportswriters earn a living during hockey season.

And fittingly, these two teams are again the favorites in the CCHA, with Michigan topping the league’s preseason coaches poll and Michigan State second, and the order of finish reversed in the media poll. This week, undefeated Michigan is the top-ranked squad in the national poll, while Michigan State holds down the No. 6 spot.

The stage is set. Let’s meet the players.

Michigan fans released a collective groan when last season’s leading scorer, Hobey Baker finalist Mike Comrie, departed for the Western Hockey League. But the Wolverines’ rookie crop of last season has helped to make up the difference, meaning that very little has changed in the land of maize and blue.

Leading the sophomore charge is Andy Hilbert (4-10–14), who is tied with senior Josh Langfeld (7-7–14) as Michigan’s leading scorer. Fellow soph Mike Cammalleri (2-10–12) has been an early-season playmaker as well, while Mark Kosick (4-4–8), last season’s top returning scorer, isn’t exactly chopped liver.

At the blue line, the duo of Jay Vancik and Dave Huntzicker — who combined for a plus/minus rating of +56 in 1999-2000 — have helped Michigan hold opponents to 2.50 goals per game this season; Vancik has also displayed a knack for timely offense, scoring the game-winning goal last Saturday against Miami. Junior Jeff Jillson leads the blueliners in scoring at 2-3–5 despite having appeared in only six of the Wolverines’ eight games thus far.

In nets, Michigan continues to look to Josh Blackburn, sporting a 5-0-2 record and a 2.43 goals against average. However, the Wolverines may or may not have Blackburn’s services this Saturday: the junior was forced out of Saturday’s Miami win after a charge by Pat Leahy led to a collision with the crossbar. In that game, senior backup L.J. Scarpace picked up the win in relief, and he would go Saturday should Blackburn be unavailable.

Michigan State, meanwhile, has experienced mixed fortunes thus far. The Spartans are 4-1-1 overall, but strength of schedule has been middling, with the loss and tie coming against No. 13 Nebraska-Omaha and unranked Merrimack, respectively. Not bad, but hardly conclusive either way.

Like the Wolverines, the Spartans lost their offensive sparkplug in Shawn Horcoff; unlike the Wolverines, the Spartans knew it was coming, and made plans accordingly. In the preseason, senior winger Rustyn Dolyny (3-3–6) was tabbed as Horcoff’s successor, in much the same way that Horcoff succeeded Mike York, and York succeeded … well, you get the picture. Continuity is the name of the game at Michigan State.

With that in mind, we inspect the defense, which in East Lansing is not synonymous with the defensemen. A tradition of two-way forwards is preserved this season in the person of Brian Maloney (2-4–6), while among the blueliners sophomore John-Michael Liles leads the offensive output and Andrew Hutchinson anchors the stay-at-home crowd.

Also a contributor defensively is senior center Andrew Bogle, though his status for Saturday (along with that of junior Joe Goodenow) is questionable after a shoulder injury suffered against Nebraska-Omaha last weekend.

The last line of defense, of course, is netminder Ryan Miller. The sophomore has taken over the starting job this season, producing to the tune of a .935 save percentage and a 1.81 goals against average. As noted by head coach Ron Mason, maybe this season the Spartans have a goaltender who will make the defense look good, instead of the sometimes-perception of MSU as a team whose defense comes first from its skaters.

So what to expect? Neither teams scores a ton, though both are competent on offense. Both defenses have been strong, so a tight, low-scoring game would seem apropos, with the possibility of special-teams play turning the outcome. The Wolverines still take a lot of penalties, and both squads have good penalty killing and solid power plays. A game-winner on special teams wouldn’t be a surprise.

So who gets it? Wait and see.


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