CSTV Game of the Week: Michigan at Michigan State

Some networks like to talk about a “rivalry week.” On CSTV’s TGI Hockey, we might as well call it “rivalry season.” Some of the biggest rivalries in college hockey will be played out before your eyes, including Boston College vs. Boston University, Denver vs. Colorado College, Army vs. Air Force, and this week’s contest: Michigan vs. Michigan State on Thursday night.

Every time the Wolverines and Spartans get together, it’s something special, and I’d know, having played in a few of these games myself during my time in Ann Arbor. I’ll never forget my freshman year, when a brawl at the end of the first period left me grappling with big Don Gibson, who logged 466 penalty minutes in four years with the Spartans (and that was before the NCAA’s crackdown on obstruction!). Let’s just say I was holding on for dear life.

While there’s no guarantee of a brawl in this week’s edition of the storied rivalry, you are sure to see a hard-fought game between two well-matched teams. There are three key areas where both teams will be looking for big production, and whichever team finds what it’s looking for will find a win.

NET WORTH: Both Al Montoya of Michigan and Dominic Vicari of Michigan State got off to shaky starts, but both goaltenders have settled down and are playing well right now. The two keepers know each other well, too: Vicari was Montoya’s backup when Team USA brought home the gold at the 2004 World Junior Championships, but when the CCHA handed out its Best Goalkeeper hardware last season, it was Montoya taking a backseat to Vicari. The Spartans-Wolverines matchup is always a great rivalry, but the matchup between these two keepers is a great one in its own right.

Lately, when you think Michigan, you think Al Montoya, thanks to his World Junior Championships performance and his first-round selection by the New York Rangers last June. Montoya was inconsistent early in the season, but he’s getting in a good groove right now. Against Ferris State, he went 121:01 without allowing a goal, before giving up an overtime score for one of only two losses this season.

Vicari may not get as much media attention as his rival in Thursday’s game, but he’s just as important a part of his team’s identity, and just as respected in the college hockey world, especially after an excellent weekend against Cornell (51 saves, 1 GA, 125:00 min).

Both keepers are getting in their groove, making hard saves look easy. Of course, as both keepers get better, their teams are getting better in front of them. Suffice it to say that whoever wins this intense goaltending battle will put his team well on the way to the victory.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?: Speaking of playing in front of the keepers, keep an eye on the goalies’ best friends (besides the posts). The battle of defenses in this game is an interesting one, as it pits Michigan’s “no name defense” against Michigan State’s “big name defense,” led by A.J. Thelen and Corey Potter.

Michigan coach Red Berenson says that his defensive corps is doing a great job, and he’ll be looking for that to continue against the Spartans, possibly changing their “no name” status in the process. Sophomore Matt Hunwick is one Wolverine blueliner who doesn’t get much recognition, despite recently being named to his second World Junior Championship team. Hunwick is a physical player who Berenson considers the best skater among his defensive corps, and deserves more recognition than he gets. Offensively, Eric Werner has made some big contributions (2-6), as the 5-foot-10 senior is a master distributing the puck.

For the Spartans, the defense gets much more attention, thanks in large part to two big names at the top of the list. One is first-round draft pick Thelen, an 18-year-old sophomore trying to handle the expectations that come with being selected 12th in the NHL draft. The 6’3″ Thelen has yet to score this season, but has recorded seven assists, and is finding that he has to work harder now that other teams recognize his skills. Early on, Thelen may not have been doing enough of the little things to help the Spartans win, but he seems to have found his complete game now, making him a dominant force for coach Rick Comley.

Speaking of dominant forces, Potter is, overall, the most dominant force on the Spartan blue line. The 6’3″ Potter missed eight games with a shoulder injury, but returned last weekend against Cornell. Potter is a physical player who uses his body well, and at 191 pounds, he still as room to grow into his big frame. Comley called Potter’s return to the lineup “monumental,” and it gives Comley two big-time defensive units to use against an opponents top line.

GOING DEEP: Speaking of top lines, Comley will be even happier to have Potter back this weekend, since Michigan has the best offensive depth in the country. Seventeen different players have scored goals for the Wolverines, and five players have nine or more points, making this a very tough team to defend.

In Michigan’s most recent games (a sweep of Miami), the line of Jeff Tambellini, David Moss, and David Rohlfs exploded, accounting for seven of Michigan’s ten goals and dominating every shift they spent on the ice. Still, it’s hard to focus on that line when the other lines are centered by T.J. Hensick (3g, 9a), Andrew Ebbett (2g, 7a), and Eric Nystrom (2g, 2a). Berenson will play all four lines, and attempt to wear down the Spartan defense.

Michigan State will counter with three strong lines of its own, including what’s been called the “ER” line: Colton FrettER (6g, 5a), Drew MillER (3g, 3a) and Chris MuellER (1g, 5a). The recent emergence of this hard-working, in-your-face line gives the Spartans three solid attacking lines. You can never count out the line of captain Jim Slater, Mike Lalonde, and Tom Goebel, either. This line hasn’t scored as much as you might expect, but Comley believes that this line will get it together. An emotional matchup against Michigan could bring out the best in this trio. Also, don’t ignore the line of Ash Goldie, David Booth, and Jim McKenzie, as the Spartans look to defend their home ice against the Wolverines.

Two X-factors need to be considered as well. First, Michigan hasn’t played since Nov. 6, so the Wolverines will need to shake the rust off very quickly. Also, Michigan averages 25.3 penalty minutes per game, almost twice as many as the Spartans, who are among the nation’s least penalized teams with 12.8 PIM per contest. Michigan’s penalty-kill is among the top 10 in the country, though, so whether the Wolverines’ penalty issues will cost them is a question that remains to be answered.

Overall, these are two well-matched teams, and the special rivalry between the schools will add even more excitement to what should be a fantastic game. I can’t wait to see these two teams lock horns on CSTV!

Billy Jaffe serves as a hockey analyst for CSTV. He is a former college player at Michigan and has served as a broadcaster and an on-ice official for CCHA games.