Wisconsin and Michigan are both in full desperation mode. No. 18 Wisconsin (7-8-2-1 Big Ten, 13-12-3-0 Overall) will likely need to go around 4-2 over its last six games and have a pretty successful Big Ten Tournament run in order to make the postseason. No. 20 Michigan will need to do even better than that over its last eight contests if it hopes to complete its rebound from a weak 2016-’17 campaign and make a surprise run at the NCAA Tournament.
With both teams just outside the top-16 Pairwise Ranking threshold with very minimal room for error, the Badgers and Wolverines are ready for an aggressive, passionate and desperate showdown in Ann Arbor this weekend.
After standing second last in the Big Ten just over two weeks ago, Wisconsin is currently ranked third in conference play with 25 points. UW is playing its best hockey of the season, including beating then-No.1 Notre Dame 5-0 and earning five points with a win and a tie (and shootout win) over Penn State in its last three contests. Michigan, despite getting swept by red-hot No. 5 Ohio State last weekend, is third in the Big Ten with 24 points and has some momentum of its own after having a pair of one-goal losses to Notre Dame, followed by sweeps of both Minnesota and Penn State over the last month.
Not only are Wisconsin and Michigan in a similar position in the Big Ten and nationally, they also are similar stylistically. Both teams have had a lot of offensive success in the Big Ten while struggling defensively at times. UW is second in the Big Ten with 94 goals but have surrendered 83 tallies, which is second to last in conference play. Similarly, Michigan is third offensively with 83 goals scored but tied for third last defensively with 82 goals against.
There is some separation, however, on special teams. Potentially Wisconsin’s biggest opportunity for success against the Wolverines is on the powerplay. Wisconsin is20th in the nation on the powerplay, scoring 20 percent of the time, which isn’t remarkable, but is good enough to likely convert against a horrible Wolverine penalty kill. After giving up two powerplay goals in its second game against OSU, Michigan is now 54th out of 60 teams nationally with a 76.24 percent penalty kill.
But in games like these, with the teams so close in the standings and the pressure mounting on both sides, anything can happen. UW may struggle on its powerplay. The games may become defensive struggles. Almost certainly, though, both teams will experience some level of adversity. In the end, this weekend will likely come down to who responds better when their backs are against the wall.
And Wisconsin, over its last three games, has found that belief and that ability to respond to adversity.
“If you look at the team in the beginning of the season, that’s where we would have hung out heads and said, ‘Alright, we’re out of this, we’ll get them next time,’” senior forward Ryan Wagner said after the Penn State tie. “But coach has talked a lot about mental toughness and that’s where it comes into play. On the bench we just have to stay positive, and I think the guys have been doing a good job.”
Puck drop for both Friday and Saturday’s games is set for 6:30 p.m. CT.