In the midst of a deep freeze throughout the state of Michigan, there’s no better time for a little animosity to heat the dome of frigid air hanging above the 65 mile stretch between East Lansing and Ann Arbor.
Yes folks, it is rivalry weekend.
In a world where football and men’s basketball, both past and present, take precedence, this series rivals both in terms of stakes, history, venom, and excitement. No series in college hockey has been played more, and no two fanbases look at one another with the same seething vitriol. In a sport where emotion, toughness, and overall pugnaciousness really count, rivalry week means just a little bit more.
GAME TIMES: Game 1 at Munn Ice Arena - Friday January 19 at 7 PM, Game 2 at Yost Ice Arena - Saturday January 20 at 8:30 PM
WATCH THE GAMES: Friday and Saturday on BTN+
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For the first time this season, the Spartans and Wolverines are facing off on the rink, and it is truly jarring to see how the tables have turned in this series. Less than two years ago, the Wolverines were effortlessly wiping the floor with MSU, obliterating the Spartans in an 8-0 bloodbath in Ann Arbor that proved to be the final nail in Danton Cole’s already pummeled coffin.
Today? MSU is the clear favorite going into the weekend.
Adam Nightingale, having taken over for Cole after the disastrous 21/22 season, has built a program that is solidly in Big Ten title contention as the calendar approaches February. Sitting in third in the Pairwise rankings, Nightingale’s Spartans are in position to be a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, a position that is nearly unthinkable after more than a decade of mediocrity and ineptitude.
Last week, MSU’s potent offense traveled to Penn State and popped the Nittany Lions in the mouth in both games of the weekend set. In the Friday night opener, Trey Augustine dazzled in net, shutting out the Nittany Lions in a 5-0 victory. A night later, the Spartans fell behind early, but shot out to take a 7-3 win at Pegula Arena over the then 20th ranked team in the nation. Artyom Levshunov was named the Big Ten’s second star of the week after his 4 point game on Saturday, as part of a 5 point overall performance in the series.
Statistically, MSU and Michigan are fairly evenly matched, but while MSU has excelled in league play, the Wolverines have floundered, sitting at 3-5-2 in league play compared to the Spartans’ 9-1-2.
Michigan is coached by Brandon Naurato, the former Michigan hockey player who took over for Mel Pearson after Pearson was fired for a bevy of controversies, including allegations of player mistreatment, lying about Covid test results, and creating a toxic work environment for female staffers. Naurato, as interim coach, led the Wolverines to a victory in the Big Ten Tournament and the Frozen Four. His Wolverines are playing well, sporting the best faceoff winning percentage in the country, the best power play unit in the country, and a tidy 3-1-1 record in their last 5 games.
Gavin Brindley leads Michigan in goals with 15 on the season, though 5 Wolverines have cracked the double digit mark. In terms of assists, Seamus Casey holds a commanding lead with 24 on the year. In goal, Michigan’s clear leader is Jake Barczewski, who has started 17 games for the Wolverines this year and carries a .908 save percentage.
Games in this series are usually tight, chippy, and more than a little exhausting - especially when both teams are as evenly matched as this year’s versions are. Avoiding errors of passion will be key for both teams, as the home crowds will both be loud, raucous, vulgar, and intense.
On a separate note, both games this weekend will be on BTN+, the subscription service that nearly nobody actually has a subscription for. This is an absolute embarrassment for the Big Ten. If you could distill the secret sauce that makes college sports the beautiful, confounding thing they are, you would get this series. As many eyeballs should be on this as possible, and the Big Ten shoving these games into a corner like junk mail is unbelievable. If you can’t get to Munn or Yost this weekend, find BTN+. These teams deserve it, and Big Ten hockey deserves so much better.