Duel in the D: Storylines, staff picks for No. 15 Michigan State vs. No. 5 Michigan


Sarah Smith

Erik Middendorf during Michigan State’s 4-2 victory over Ohio State on November 10, 2022. Photo Credit: Sarah Smith/WDBM

Jacob Stinson, Hockey Beat Reporter

EAST LANSING — Michigan State forward Erik Middendorf has never been fond of the University of Michigan.

“Growing up playing at the U.S. (National Team Development) Program,” he said. “All those guys growing up wanted to go to Michigan, and that was never the case for me.”

Middendorf spent two seasons with the USNTDP. Five of his ex-teammates became Wolverines, but Middendorf said he was always partial to the Spartans.

“I was always kind of a Michigan State fan even though I wasn’t committed here,” he said. “Just because of the blue-collar and underdog mentality, and just how those Michigan guys treat Michigan State.”

If Middendorf is any indication, there’s still no love lost between the in-state foes. That rivalry, the most-played in college hockey, resumes this weekend for the 341st and 342nd time. 

The second game is the annual Duel in the D, a neutral-site game played at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit. Starting in 2016, both teams compete for the “Iron D” trophy. While the Spartans won it the first time, Michigan has won all five since.

Puck drop for the first game is scheduled for 7 p.m. ET Friday in East Lansing. The Duel in the D will begin at 8 p.m. ET Saturday. 

Unlike previous years, this series has major Big Ten implications on the line. Last year, Michigan State entered the series with eight consecutive losses. This year, the Spartans are in a four-way tie for second place in the conference. 

“The standings weren’t really close last year,” sophomore defenseman David Gucciardi said. “This year they are. We’re excited, just more going into the game, more energy for us, more fuel to our fire.”

For the Spartans, this series is one of two left before the regular season ends. Wisconsin remains, but they will need to win at least one this weekend if they want to host a Big Ten tournament series or qualify for the NCAA playoffs. 

After sputtering over the holidays, Michigan State has rediscovered its offense, scoring  three or more goals in five of its last six. That matches up well against goalie Erik Portillo, who has the second-lowest save percentage among Big Ten starters (.908).

For the Wolverines, this is not only a chance to avenge December’s loss at Munn Ice Arena but also an opportunity to help its seeding in the NCAA Tournament. They’re currently No. 4 overall in PairWise rankings, so a win could help boost their rank and draw an easier first-round opponent.

Michigan’s offense revolves around its top line of Gavin Brindley, Adam Fantilli and Rutger McGroarty. All three are elite players who played in the IIHF World Junior Championship in December. The trio has combined for 36 goals and 90 points.

Fantilli leads the charge on offense. He missed four games — including the December series with MSU — for training camp with Canada’s World Juniors team. Regardless, the freshman still leads the nation in points (45), and he’s expected to make an impact this weekend.

Middendorf played junior hockey with both Fantilli and McGroarty on the Chicago Steel in the United States Hockey League. As a 16-year-old, Fantilli won the MVP of the USHL playoffs.

“He’s a generational player,” Middendorf said. “He had a full beard when he was 16 and I was a 20-year-old in Chicago. He’s just a mature player. He plays the game really well. He’s really fast.”

Middendorf knows that the key to beating the Wolverines starts with locking up his former teammates. 

“I think getting into [Fantilli],” he said. “Bumping him, staying on top of him, making the game hard for him…It could slow their offense down and their top line. I think we match up really well.”

Impact staff predictions

Stinson: Both teams split. The Wolverines are incredibly talented, but they’re inconsistent, especially on defense. Fantilli will give Michigan a boost, but I don’t trust Portillo and the defense to win U-M two games.

Jacob Phillips, Hockey Beat Reporter: A split is the best anyone can hope for. Last time U-M traveled to Munn, the Spartans skated away with a one-goal victory. When MSU traveled to Yost, it was the Wolverines with the one-goal W. Expect the same from a nearly identical series.

Ryan Radosevich, Hockey Beat Reporter: Split. I’d expect Fantilli to win at least one game for the Wolverines, but Munn Ice Arena has been an incredibly tough road location for any team not named Minnesota. The Spartans need points this series, and they can definitely take them in a win at Munn.