Last week Beavers, Bulldogs, and Babe the Blue Ox, battled to create a Minnesota rivalry. This week, it’s (the state of) Michigan’s turn.
A young Wayne State squad leaves the friendly confines of Hockeytown, USA, to face No. 14 Michigan State in East Lansing. The two Michigan residents have never squared off before and Warrior coach Bill Wilkinson reckons it is about time.
“Any time you have teams from within the same state, it is bound to lead to some developments,” Wilkinson said. “There are also a lot of issues between the CHA and CCHA. There are many intricacies in the game itself.”
The games are awkwardly timed, coming Thursday-Friday. (By the time you read this, the first game may have already been played.) The Warrior strategy does not require much thought, and goes something like this: do everything to keep the more offensively-gifted, nationally-ranked Spartans off the scoreboard.
Granted the Spartans have played four more games than the Warriors, but Michigan State’s leading scorer entering the weekend, Jim Slater, has the same number of points as the first three on Wayne State’s list combined.
“The premise is that we are trying to be as conservative as possible,” Wilkinson said. “We don’t want to let anyone go alone on defense, and slow the game down as much as possible.”
“We are not as explosive a team as Michigan State,” he added. “So we can’t get into a shootout-type game with them.”
If Wayne State succeeds in tightening the contest with its physical play, than a presently nonexistent rivalry will develop quickly. Wayne State is looking for its place among the Michigan college hockey teams.
The Warriors also have a chance to further inflict some CHA damage on the Spartans. Findlay stunned Michigan State, 4-3, back on Oct. 10. That surely has not been lost on the boys from East Lansing.
While we’re on the subject of rivals, Wayne State and Findlay turned up the pressure against each other this past weekend. Playing a home-and-home, each team won in the other’s building.
On both nights, the Warriors blew leads. Rigel Shaw scored for the Oilers at 11:45 of the third period to send the game into overtime before Nate Higgins potted the sudden-death winner. More disturbing for a team that will rely on defense against the Spartans, on Sunday, the Warriors had opened up a 4-1 lead, but special teams abandoned them. Two power-play goals and a shorthander keyed a comeback in an eventual 6-5 Findlay win.
It was an impressive performance for Findlay, which needed a boost to its offense. The Oilers get to host their first nonconference games this week, playing Canisius.
“We came back and showed some toughness at the end of Sunday’s game,” Wilkinson said. “They got some opportunities to put in some goals and they cashed in on them. We’re a young team and we are going to make some mistakes.”
The games against Findlay have gotten increasingly more heated. Scheduled to face each other at least six times this year, the two teams have squared off four times in two months. All those games except one have been decided by one goal.
“Anytime you play someone this many times, you are going to get familiar with each other,” Wilkinson said. “That increases since the games have been so close to each other, than if our next meetings were in January and February.”
Speaking of the Minnesota rivalry, Bemidji failed in its quest to win the first-ever Babe the Blue Ox traveling trophy against No. 15 Minnesota-Duluth last Saturday, but the Beavers might not mind.
They had already beaten the Bulldogs, 3-1, the night before — the first ever win for the program against a ranked opponent.
“You take a win against someone like Minnesota-Duluth,” said Bemidji coach Tom Serratore. “It’s a big win for the program and for the league.”
Senior goaltender Grady Hunt led the way by allowing one goal in the first period and nothing more, making 20 saves on the night to protect the Beavers’ lead. His efforts — and the significance of the win for his program — earned him USCHO’s national Defensive Player of the Week award.
“Wins against ranked opponents need strong performances from your goaltender,” Serratore said. “Grady had a good game, making 20 saves and came up big for us when we needed him.”
Unlike the Wayne State-Michigan State games, Bemidji and Minnesota-Duluth first played back in 1947. The two schools decided this year to make their meeting an annual event, and crafted a trophy to add a little flair.
“We’ve been trying to make more of being in the same state of Minnesota,” Serratore said. “We put a lot more on the line and we said let’s add a little flavor to these games.”
The familiarity of the Land o’ 10,000 Lakes could not be more opposite than the next two weeks for Bemidji: the Beavers travel East to play two games apiece at Merrimack and Connecticut.
Merrimack will not be much easier than UMD. The Warriors just battled depleted, but No. 2, Boston College to a tie and will have some momentum of their own.
“We don’t know much about these teams at all,” Serratore said. “It’s going to be difficult just to be on the road for such a long time, playing four straight games.”
You can’t play a rival every week.
At the start of the year, I solicited fan responses to make predictions in this column space. I renew the offer, gentle readers, if you wish to add your opinions on this week’s games to the end of the column. Simply drop me an email at [email protected]. Thanks to Chris Brown for buoying me in the first weeks.
Finally, in analyzing college hockey, we sometimes forget the fun of playing the games. To all of you out there at any level getting on the ice at unholy hours just to take some shots and skate — especially those that have to turn around and stay awake in class — you have my respect.