Feb. 27, 2014
By Chad Shepard, MGoBlue.com
The No. 13-ranked Michigan ice hockey team will host the Ohio State Buckeyes in Ann Arbor on Friday (Feb. 28) before heading south for a primetime showdown on Sunday (March 2) at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, in the second of U-M's two home-and-home series with OSU.
It has been three months between games, as the two rivals last met around Thanksgiving, but the memories are still fresh from the first early-season Big Ten series. A few Michigan players took time to speak with MGoBlue.com about the last time the schools met, the importance of this weekend's rivalry series and the significance of playing in an NHL rink.
When the programs last played, U-M earned the series sweep in a pair of one-goal victories, including an overtime thriller on Nov. 29 to kick off the inaugural season of Big Ten conference play. The game ended when Michigan's Andrew Copp won a neutral zone faceoff back to freshman defenseman Nolan De Jong, who slid the puck to his defensive partner, senior Mac Bennett. Copp caught a stretch pass in stride from the U-M captain and skated in alone on OSU's Logan Davis, beating him to his blocker side for the game-winner. Copp remembers the series vividly.
"Getting the overtime winner was pretty nice. It was a special weekend with the football game and the first Big Ten game," said the sophomore forward, "That was pretty cool."
The Wolverines are looking forward to an opportunity for continued success against their foes from Ohio, who tested them in their prior two meetings.
"They're a tough team to play against and they're fast and offensive. They've got a lot of skill," said Copp, "We'll be ready."
"There's a little bit more pride," added senior forward Luke Moffatt, "You have that battle-of-the states with Ohio and Michigan beating each other up. The losing team, I think, always feels like it's a bigger rivalry than the winning team. It hurts so much more to lose than it feels good to win."
The long time frame between contests only excites U-M's players more. "It's been awhile since we've played this team and we consider it one of our rivals, so it's going to be a fun weekend," said sophomore forward JT Compher. It has been awhile -- 88 days between meetings to be exact -- creating one of the longest gaps between two series across the entire Big Ten schedule this year.
Both teams have undergone big changes in that time, perhaps none more significant than U-M's recent loss of Bennett and the rise of OSU goaltender Christian Frey, who has come on strong for the team in the second half. Frey joined the team in December after starting the season with the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL and has been excellent since his arrival in Columbus. In 10 starts, he's posted a 6-2-2 record, 2.10 goals-against average and .934 save percentage for the Buckeyes.
Copp played against Frey a few times when both players were younger, but the Wolverines say their game plan doesn't change with the emergence of a new goalie between the pipes.
"With all goalies you've got to get traffic to the front of the net and you have to get rebounds and get bodies to the front of the net," said Copp.
"We're going to want to get pucks to the net and get bodies to the net anyways, so it doesn't change our game much," added Compher.
While the emergence of a freshman goaltender has been a second-half theme for the Buckeyes, Michigan has had its highs and lows. Copp says his team has overcome some difficult challenges, and believes they're better off for it.
"We've learned a lot about ourselves, going through some adversity in the last month or two," says the assistant captain, "We're more game-ready and we know what we have to do."
"We've had a lot of ups and downs but there are no playoffs in the Big Ten, so we're treating this like our playoff push," added Moffatt, "It'll be a good start for us."
A matchup between U-M and OSU is always special, but the second of this weekend's two meetings will be particularly unique, as the Wolverines and Buckeyes are slated to face off in Nationwide Arena, home to the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets.
Michigan shared a team meal in the Blue Jackets' rink on Dec. 1 when they were in Columbus to get acclimated to where they'd be playing come the end of February. Now that time has come, and the team is eager to play in another NHL rink.
"Any time you're in an NHL arena it's just special," said Compher, "You like those games. It's going to be fun playing in that type of building."
The Wolverine roster features a dozen NHL draft picks, including Copp (WPG, '13), Moffatt (COL, '10) and Compher (BUF, '13), so odds are this won't be the last trip to Nationwide Arena for at least a few players on the team. The NHL looms large for much of the talent on this roster, but they're not focused on that now.
"You kind of take in the view," Copp admits, "But nothing changes in our preparation or our routine or our game plan so we've got to go out there, execute and be a hard-working team. It's just a cool experience."
"We're there on business, but it gives you a little glimpse (of the future) whenever we go into those big time arenas." agrees Moffatt.
Michigan and OSU drop the puck at 6:30 p.m. for the Ann Arbor tilt on Friday (Feb. 28), and Sunday's (March 2) wrap up of the season series will be a matinee event with a 1 p.m. puck drop. The games can be seen on Big Ten Network and Fox Sports Detroit, respectively.