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Michigan, Michigan State brace for Big Ten tourney

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Michigan State and Michigan finished in second and third place, respectively, in the Big Ten.

So, in the men's ice hockey conference championship tournament that begins at 4:30 p.m. Thursday at Joe Louis Arena, the Wolverines must win three games to win the title, while the upstart Spartans have earned a first-round bye.

Michigan (20-14-0) begins play against sixth-seeded Wisconsin (4-25-5) at 8 p.m. Thursday.

The Badgers, in an unusually underwhelming performance, finished last in the conference. But goalie Joel Rumpel remains capable of stealing a game.

"They've got everything to gain and nothing to lose," Michigan Coach Red Berenson said today in a news conference. "And they're not as bad a team as their record.

"They've been beaten up in every regard," Berenson said of the frequently-injured Badgers.

Michigan has led the nation in offense from the start of the season. But goals against have been a continual issue.

The Wolverines feature Zach Hyman, who led the conference in scoring (19 goals, 30 assists, 49 points, in 34 games) and a top Red Wings' prospect, Dylan Larkin, of Waterford, (14-29-43, 32 games). They skate on the same line.

Defenseman Zach Werenski, of Grosse Pointe, contributes significantly to the offense (9-15-24, 32 games)

"We've led the country all year in scoring," Berenson said, "our goals against are higher than they should be but, again, we don't have a Marty Turco or a one-goalie situation.

"I'm a one-goalie coach. We've got two goalies."

Team defense has not always supported the play of goalies Zach Nagelvoort, (11-9-0, 2.63 goals against, .906 save percentage) and Steve Racine (9-5-0, 3.19, .901)

Berenson said he will name the starter against the Badgers on Thursday.

The Spartans (17-15-2) won 10 of their last 14 games, and a solid roster has jelled defensively. It enabled them to beat the Wolverines, 2-1, in the last game of the season in Ann Arbor to garner second place in the conference, by one point over Michigan.

If Michigan beats Wisconsin, the Wolverines and Spartans face off again at 8 p.m. Friday.

Michigan State is hoping the resurgent play in the past three months is a sign that the rebuilding program under coach Tom Anastos is on course, and on schedule.

"I think it all started back in early December," Anastos said of the uptick in performance.

"We were going through some growing pains and we played very poorly against Minnesota on a Friday night. And we just lifted our team.

"We made some changes, and we responded the next night with a win in the shootout and that just lifted our year.

"Later, we played well in the Great Lakes Invitational tournament, but we lost 2-1, to Michigan.

"We split with Michigan in weekend games, went out to Minnesota and had some success.

"Each weekend seemed to get more important for us, and with that, we gained some experience with building pressure.

"There's no one defining moment. I think we're just growing up and gaining experience and when you get some confidence, that's what gives you a chance to win."

The Spartans are led by the redoubtable Jake Hildebrand in goal (17-15-2, 2.12, .930, six shutouts).

Hildebrand is the Big Ten Player of the Year, and his play is capable of carrying his team.

"When I came here to take on the rebuilding process with the program, that's where we started," Anastos said. "That player is the most important on the team, that you play the most. We went out to identify a guy we could ride with."

In the previous two seasons, when the Spartans skated with a lot of inexperience, Anastos said Hildebrand was a stalwart.

"I really liked his demeanor.

"I didn't think he had the greatest early third of the season," Anastos said of the current campaign. "But I think since December, he's really been outstanding and he gets better and better.

"He's a great representation of our goal in our program, which is to get back to the elite level."

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/greggkrupa

Big Ten tournament

at Joe Louis Arena, Detroit

Thursday

No. 5 seed Ohio State vs. No. 4 seed Penn State, 4:30

No. 6 seed Wisconsin vs. No. 3 seed Michigan, 8

Friday's semifinals

Ohio State-Penn State winner vs. No. 1 seed Minnesota, 4:30

Wisconsin-Michigan winner vs. No. 2 seed Michigan State, 8

Saturday

Championship, 8