CCHA Semifinal Preview: Michigan vs. MSU

The No. 9-ranked Michigan hockey team continues its run towards another CCHA Tournament title tonight with a semifinal round match up with No. 11 Michigan State. How do the Wolverines match up with the rival Spartans? Do Red Berenson's Wolverines have what it takes to advance to Saturday's championship game?

It's playoff time again, and not that best two-of-three stuff.  The No. 9-ranked Michigan ice hockey team advanced to the semifinals of the CCHA Tournament with a two game sweep of Northern Michigan last weekend at Yost Ice Arena in Ann Arbor.  Now, while playing their best hockey of the season, the Wolverines meet intrastate rival Michigan State for the sixth time of the year, this time for a spot in the CCHA Tournament championship game on Saturday night.

With a 12-4-1 record since the start of 2007, the Wolverines have played their way off the NCAA Tournament bubble after a mediocre start to the 2006-07 season. Sitting at 25-12-1, Michigan has already punched their ticket to the dance. A possible birth in the Grand Rapids, Mich., regional is on the line, however.

Michigan State, however, is sitting ever so gently on the proverbial bubble. After getting as high as No. 6 in the national polls, the Spartans stumbled over the final weeks of the season and need at least one, possibly two wins this weekend to ensure hearing their name Sunday afternoon when the official brackets go public on ESPN2. Michigan State would also like to end up in the Midwest Regional, but it will probably take a Spartans win Friday night for that to be possible.

Series Notes:
Series vs. MSU: 126-116-17 Michigan
Season Series: 2-2-1
Neutral Site Meetings: 19-18-6 Michigan
In the CCHA Playoffs: 7-3-0 MSU
In the CCHA Semifinals: 2-1-0 MSU

U-M Offense vs. MSU Defense
F - T.J. Hensick (20-42-62)
F - Kevin Porter (20-33-53)
F - Andrew Cogliano (23-24-47)
F - Chad Kolarik (17-30-47)
D - Jack Johnson (16-18-34)

UM Goals/Game: 4.29 (1st CCHA)
UM Shots/Game: 32.4

MSU Goals Allowed/Game: 2.39 (2nd CCHA)
MSU Shots Allowed/Game: 27.9

Outlook: When the Wolverines and Spartans last met, it was Jeff Lerg that stole the show in this match up. The Michigan offense threw 57 shots at the MSU net, but Lerg turned 54 of them aside in a 3-3 draw that saw the Wolverines out shoot the Spartans by close to a 3-1 margin. The Michigan State defense traditionally has done a good job of funneling things to the outside of the ice and bottling up T.J. Hensick, so, for the Wolverines to be successful tonight, the Maize and Blue will need to put lots of shots on goal and crash the net hard. Michigan could break it open if Hensick and Cogliano are able to get on track early in the contest.

Advantage: Michigan Offense

MSU Offense vs. U-M Defense
Bryan Lerg (22-12-34)
Tim Kennedy (14-20-34)
Justin Abdelkader (14-13-27)
Jim McKenzie (9-17-26)
Chris Mueller (12-13-25)

MSU Goals/Game: 3.17 (7th CCHA)
MSU Shots/Game: 28.0

UM Goals Allowed/Game: 3.08 (7th CCHA)
UM Shots Allowed/Game: 29.2

Outlook: Michigan State doesn't have the speed and playmaking ability that the Wolverines do up front, but Bryan Lerg, Justin Abdelkader and Tim Kennedy are all opportunistic scorers that can put the puck in the back of the net. Michigan needs to consistently be on the right side of the puck, or the Spartans will jump out in front just as they did in the last meeting between the two schools. MSU has a strong fore-check and could create problems in the Michigan defensive zone. The Wolverines will need to be crisp on breakout passes and avoid turning it over in front of their own net.

Advantage: Even

Billy Sauer
Record: 24-12-1
GAA: 2.98
Save %: .898

Michigan State
Jeff Lerg
Record: 21-12-3
GAA: 2.40
Save %: .913

Outlook: Jeff Lerg has been known to steal the show in this series. Despite his diminutive size, Lerg plays big in the net and gives MSU their biggest advantage in tonights game. Sauer has improved over the second half of the season, but he doesn't have the game changing ability that Lerg possesses. Michigan can't afford hanging Sauer out to dry with turnovers in their own zone, and Lerg will keep the Spartans in this one all the way till the end.

Advantage: Michigan State

U-M Power Play vs. MSU Penalty Kill
U-M PP: 18.1% (6th CCHA, 41 for 226)
U-M SHG Allowed: 11

MSU PK: 86.5% (3rd CCHA, 147 for 170)
MSU SHG Scored: 4
MSU PIM: 14.42 (3rd CCHA)

Outlook: Michigan's power play has been inconsistent all season. As a result, Coach Berenson used his week off during the first week of the CCHA Tournament to shuffle the Wolverines power play lines. In the new lines initial test last weekend, the Wolverines put a power-play goal in the back of the net on both nights of the weekend series, but, more importantly, also showed improved puck possession with the man advantage. Michigan State's penalty kill is near the top in the conference thanks to Jeff Lerg and the Spartans ability to bottle up the middle of the ice. Hensick and Cogliano will have a chance to shine on Michigan's power play.

Advantage: Slight Michigan Edge

U-M Penalty Kill vs. MSU Power Play
U-M PK: 81.1% (T-9th CCHA, 180 for 222)
U-M SHG Scored: 14
U-M PIM: 17.32 (7th CCHA)

MSU PP: 18.8% (3rd CCHA, 38 for 202)
MSU SHG Allowed: 5

Outlook: Michigan State has one of the better power plays in the CCHA while the Wolverines have struggled with the penalty kill this season. Michigan needs to stay out of the box and avoid bad penalties to avoid the penalty kill situation. However, should the Wolverines find themselves a man down, keeping track of assignments and not over pursuing becomes key for the penalty killers. Also, the defensemen need to keep people off of Billy Sauer and clear all rebounds out of the middle of the ice. Michigan does have one of the most explosive shorthanded games in the nation. If the Wolverines can net their 15th shorthander of the season, it would be a back-breaker for the Spartans.

Keys of the Game:
1. Crisp breakout passes: In the Wolverines last loss against Ohio State, the team had a problem moving the puck from the defensive zone to the neutral zone without turning the puck over. Michigan State will capitalize on those mistakes if passes aren't on target and to the open skaters.

2. Fast starts: Michigan is just 1-8-1 when trailing after the second period. They were able to overcome a 3-1 deficit to force a 3-3 tie with the Spartans in their last meeting, but Michigan is playing a dangerous game if they fall behind tonight. Michigan State is not a sharp offensive team and if they are forced to push things offensively, things will open up for Michigan's centers.

3. Billy Sauer: Despite the Wolverines high octane offense, the Wolverines will only go as far as Billy Sauer takes them. He has lowered his goal against average dramatically over the second half of the season, and his confidence is at an all-time high. If Sauer can continue his strong play, the Wolverines have a shot at going places, and not just in the CCHA Tournament.

Despite the fact that the Spartans are still on the bubble, it's been Michigan playing with a sense of urgency over the second half of the year. T.J. Hensick has been on a tear as of late and has been a one-man wrecking crew for the Wolverines. Despite the Spartans usual ability to handcuff Hensick, the Wolverines Hobey Baker Award candidate is the difference in a close U-M victory.
Michigan - 4, Michigan State - 2 (Empty Net Goal)

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