No. 12 Michigan State set to host No. 6 Michigan


Sarah Smith

Erik Middendorf assesses the defense during Michigan State’s loss to Minnesota on December 3, 2022. Photo Credit: Sarah Smith/WDBM

Jacob Stinson, Hockey Beat Reporter

EAST LANSING — Last season, Michigan and Michigan State, the most-played rivalry in college hockey, faced off six times — four times in the regular season and twice in the Big Ten tournament. All six went to the Wolverines. 

The last of those, an 8-0 blowout in Ann Arbor, forced the Spartans to take a long look in the mirror. If Michigan State wanted to be a competitive college hockey program in the near future, it was going to need to make some changes.

So that’s what happened. Michigan State brought in an entirely new coaching staff, headed by Adam Nightingale, to go along with 12 new players on the roster. 

The results have been better than expected, to say the least. Michigan State already has more points than it accrued a season ago. The Spartans are 11-6-1, rank No. 12 in the latest USCHO poll and sit at third place in the Big Ten. 

That early success has forced the college hockey world to take notice, including the same team that embarrassed the Spartans in early March.

“It’s better for the rivalry,” Michigan forward Jay Keranen said. “We know where they’re at, and…where we’re at. There’s huge points on the line, that makes the rivalry that much better.”

Similar to Michigan State, Michigan also has a new head coach. Brandon Naurato is serving as the interim head coach after Mel Pearson was let go in August.

Both the Wolverines and Spartans are led by a plethora of young talent. Despite the departure of Owen Power, Matty Beniers and Kent Johnson to the National Hockey League, Michigan has retained plenty of pro-level talent. Luke Hughes, who was picked fifth overall in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft,  both anchors the defense and quarterbacks the power play. Fellow first-rounder Mackie Samoskevich is having a career season, already outscoring his goal total from a year ago. A top prospect for 2023, freshman Adam Fantilli has also made an immediate impact as one of the country’s most dangerous scorers.

While Michigan will be without Fantilli – who will be representing Team Canada in the World Junior Ice Hockey Championship – the identity of the Wolverines remains the same.

“(It’s the) same Michigan,” Nightingale said. “They have a lot of talent, a lot of speed and want to play with a lot of skill. (They’re) a really good team.”

For Michigan State, the biggest surprise has been its first line, led by two freshmen: Daniel Russell and Karsen Dorwart. Both are scoring at nearly a point-per-game pace, which leads the team. To complement Russell and Dorwart on the wing, senior Jagger Joshua, who had been known primarily as an enforcer, found his scoring touch, turning in career highs in both goals and points.

The similarities don’t stop there, however. Despite the hot start, both teams suffered rather humbling series the weekend before.

Michigan State suffered its first consecutive losses of the season in a sweep by Minnesota. The Spartans were outscored 11-3 on the weekend, and the first goal for Michigan State didn’t come until the last period of the final game. 

Michigan, who sits at fifth place in the Big Ten, split its weekend series with Wisconsin, giving the Badgers their first conference win of the season in a shocking upset.

Both teams will want to put the previous week behind them. And there’s no better distraction than a rivalry game, with each team getting to play on home ice. 

“Outside of the rivalry for us, these are still two huge games in the Big Ten,” Michigan assistant coach Rob Rassey said. “These are conference games for us, and we haven’t had a great start to the conference…They’re two huge games, and we’re making sure our guys know that.”

“Obviously this is a big weekend for us,” Nightingale said. “We want to keep growing as a team.”

Friday’s game will take place at Munn Ice Arena, whereas Saturday’s contest will be at Yost Ice Arena in Ann Arbor. The puck will drop for both games at 6:30 p.m. EST.

Players to watch

Luke Hughes, D, Michigan: If you’ve heard Hughes’ name before, it’s likely for one of two reasons. Either you’re familiar with his brothers, NHL stars Jack and Quinn, or you watched him dominate Michigan State a season ago. Like his brothers, Luke is an elite skater and playmaker. That skillset makes him one of the main engines for the Michigan offense, especially breaking out of the defensive zone or running a power play. Last season, he scored 13 points in six games against the Spartans, so expect him to be a big part of the Wolverine offense again.

Rutger McGroarty, F, Michigan: Rivalry games are almost a guarantee to become scrappy. That’s where big, physical power forwards like McGroarty come in. A first-round pick of the Winnipeg Jets, McGroarty has put up big numbers thanks to his combination of power and finesse. He’s strong with both a powerful shot and good stickhandling. He’s Michigan’s third leading scorer and has seven points in his last four games. 

Jeremy Davidson, F, Michigan State: After struggling early on, Davidson has started to find his groove for the Spartans. He has seven points in the last five games, including two scores in the second game against Minnesota. He’s been making smart decisions around the net and positioning himself well to put back rebounds, which should set him up for success against a Michigan team that’s had lackluster goaltending from starter Erik Portillo to this point.

Impact staff predictions

Stinson: Both teams split. I don’t believe that Michigan State would drop four games in a row, and Michigan is too talented for me to think a Spartan sweep is realistic. While the Spartans will need a much stronger effort than what they showed against Minnesota, I think the sold-out crowd at Munn will help them do that Friday.

Jacob Phillips, Hockey Beat Reporter: Expect a hard-fought series ending in a split. Home ice advantage will never mean more than in this series, and both teams will need support to take advantage of crowd support. These are good teams, and I don’t see either coming out on top in both.

Ryan Radosevich, Hockey Beat Reporter: It’s a home-and-home rivalry series and I’m expecting a split. Michigan State will pull out a gutsy win at home and break the six-game losing streak to the Wolverines. Michigan, despite some ups and downs early this season, are a very talented team that should take care of the Spartans on home ice.