Michigan and Michigan State are tipping off in a pretty epic basketball match-up with sole possession of first place in the Big Ten on the line on Saturday. But before they do, the two teams will meet on the ice, playing Thursday night at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, followed by a rematch the next evening at Munn Arena in East Lansing.
Tonight's game was originally scheduled to be played on Saturday at Joe Louis Arena, but with basketball earning a Saturday night prime-time TV slot, the game was pushed up to Thursday.
Michigan comes into the game as the presumed favorite, nationally ranked and sitting just inside the bubble for the NCAA tournament. But the two teams have been trending in opposite directions since the Great Lakes Invitational in late December.
The Spartans got off to a terrible start this season, but have a 3-1-2 record since the GLI, including a dominating 3-0 win over Michigan outdoors at the GLI. It's no coincidence that their recent turn in play coincides with the return of top players Matt Berry and John Draeger, who missed much of the first half of the season with lower-body injuries.
Michigan, meanwhile, hasn't won a game since a December 2nd win at Ohio State. The Wolverines finished the first half of the year ranked among the elite in the country, with an incredible knack for pulling out close games, thanks to some outstanding goal tending, and in spite of some brutal defensive lapses.
But their offense has struggled to find rhythm in recent games, and they haven't been able to overcome some soft goals and big mistakes at the blue line. The schedule hasn't done them many favors, with an off-week after the GLI, followed by one series at Wisconsin, followed by another bye week.
The Wolverines will be hoping that extra time off allowed them to regroup and play more like they did in the early months of the season. The Wolverines are excited about the possibility of freshman defenseman Kevin Lohan returning from an injury, which, all due respect to Lohan, gives you some idea of what the defensive situation has been like for Michigan.
This series is pretty low-stakes as far as the Big Ten standings are concerned. Theoretically, either of these teams could make a run at Wisconsin to capture a bye at the Big Ten tournament in St. Paul, but even that seems like slim reward. Michigan is still clinging to hopes of an at-large tournament bid, and correcting their recent struggles this weekend with a couple wins against Michigan State would really help their chances.
Thursday night's game will be televised by Fox Sports Detroit, while Friday's game will be the first game of a double-header on the Big Ten Network..