January 24, 2006 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Michigan-MSU Ready to Battle Again

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

It didn't take Jack Johnson's late hit last week on Tyler Howells for there to be bad blood between Michigan and Michigan State. But it didn't help.

The teams will reacquaint themselves Friday, 10 days after the Spartans and freshman goalie Jeff Lerg shut out the Wolverines, 2-0. That game ended with Michigan's Chad Kolarik and Johnson teaming up to hit Howells late, causing a bloody mess for which Johnson was far from repentent. It wasn't the first such incident for Johnson, but it drew his first game DQ.

"Certainly you're looking for the points, but we're trying to keep them on an even keel," said MSU coach Rick Comley. "The media does make a lot of it because football and basketball is a big deal too. If you watched the end, with the Johnson hit to the nonsense with shaking hands, to the yapping going on — they compete growing up, it's high intense competitors, packed with emotion every time we play."

Michigan coach Red Berenson said trying to downplay the game is useless.

"I don't know why you would downplay it that it's MSU — they're ahead of us in the standings," he said. "This is a team we're battling for home ice in the first round or at least a bye, and we're obvioulsy vying for bragging rights in the state of Michigan in terms of recruiting."

Johnson sat out Friday's Michigan win over Bowling Green, and returned for his team's loss to the Falcons on the back end Saturday.

Michigan State is also coming off a split weekend with Nebraska-Omaha, for which there is no shame. It snapped an 8-1 stretch, which followed a 1-5-3 stretch. (The Spartans also suffered a 2-1 setback to Ferris State on Tuesday.)

"We worked hard, gave our best, and they were better that night," said Comley. "When you put (Scott) Parse and (Bill) Thomas together, I don't think there's a better 1-2 punch in the country."

High praise coming from a coach that lost 6-3 to a Colorado College team that features Brett Sterling and Marty Sertich.

In any event, Comley said he's liked his team from the beginning of the season. But a rash of injuries set them back. Now entirely healthy, things are falling into place. Their rankings in the places that matter, PWR and KRACH, are very high considering the perception that was out there.

"We're still a work in progress," said Comley. "It's not necessarily one line we have to rely on. The freshman line's been good for us. The Lerg line had a good night, the Mueller line had a good Friday. We're not a team of superstars. We really need contributions from a lot of people."

Michigan is, of course, the opposite — a team loaded with top-end, highly-recruited talent. But because of turnover, most of that talent is young.

"If you ask everyone to stand up in our locker room that wasn't there last year, 15 players would stand up," said Berenson. "All those players have fallen into some kind of a role, but whether they are able to handle it — whatever the role is, we need to do it better every night.

"We've got so few vets ... and (Brandon) Kaleniecki's not played much. Every time we've worked in one of our freshmen with a vet, someone gets hurt and we have to make a change.

"Every time we go on the road is the first time any of these freshmen have played in these buildings."

"This is the most isolated freshmen class since I've been here at Michigan. They have to contribute more than any (freshmen) class before them."

Dealing with all of those players will be Michigan State's defense, an underrated group with a lot of strong, steady players. And though Howells was moved there from forward, he typifies the workmanlike group.

"(Corey) Potter is an all-American in my mind," said Comley, who pairs him with Howells. "(Jared) Nightingale is another of those unheralded guys. (Brandon) Gentile has his confidence back after a major injury last year and pairs with (Daniel) Vukovic to give us another solid pair."

Michigan was also dealing with the annual exodus of players to the World Junior tournament. Getting everyone re-acclimated has come slowly. And Kaleniecki is a senior who has been fighting injuries all season.

"It's been tough on him. He wants to have his best season as a senior and it isn't the first injury he's had this year," said Berenson. "So it's been frustrating for him. He's been kept out of the lineup on other occasions and been playing hurt more often than not. We're hoping he's ready this weekend, but right now it's just a hope."

Both teams have had interesting issues in goal. Michigan State's Dominic Vicari recently missed time with an eye injury, and suddenly Lerg emerged as the No. 1. And Comley is sticking with him.

"When one goalie plays, it does take something away from the other," said Comley. "That's the reality. I do need to get Dom back in there, but Jeff has played very well."

Michigan's tale is more noteworthy. Traditionally, Berenson will bring a goalie in, play him just about every game for four seasons, then move on to the next guy. From Steve Shields to Marty Turco to Josh Blackburn to Al Montoya (who left after three seasons). Billy Sauer was brought in to be the next guy, but for the last three games, senior Noah Ruden has gotten the nod.

"I think we're at the point where we can go either way," said Berenson. "We played Noah at Michigan State (last week) because he has more experience and has been there. Now that Billy has seen it, I wouldn't mind playing him."

Thing is, in Berenson's system, this might indicate that old cliche they say about quarterbacks: if you have two goalies, you really have none. Whether that's an actual concern will play itself out in the coming weeks.

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