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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

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Minus Guptill, Michigan faces Minnesota in conference-defining series

Paul Sherman/Daily
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By Alejandro Zúñiga, Daily Sports Editor
Published February 13, 2014

When Mac Bennett walked into media availability Tuesday afternoon, he looked around the room at the pool of reporters and made a request.

“Don’t ask me about Penn State,” the senior defenseman said.

The Michigan hockey team suffered an upset at the hands of the Big Ten bottom-feeding Nittany Lions last weekend, but it has had little time to dwell on the loss. Instead, the Wolverines have been busy preparing for their visit to Minneapolis for a crucial two-game series against No. 2 Minnesota on Friday and Saturday.

The Golden Gophers (8-2-2 Big Ten, 19-4-5 overall), one of the nation’s top teams, only recently relinquished their stranglehold on the conference. Two losses at Wisconsin helped keep Michigan within six points of Minnesota, opening up a three-team battle with the Badgers for the two invaluable byes in the Big Ten Tournament.

“We need to make sure we get up for this game,” Bennett said. “They’re going to be ready for us.”

But as much as Bennett and Michigan (6-3-1, 14-7-3) would like to forget about Penn State, Alex Guptill’s body won’t let him. Though the forward skated Wednesday after suffering an upper-body injury against the Nittany Lions, Michigan coach Red Berenson confirmed that the junior won’t make the trip to Minnesota, explaining that playing might exacerbate the issue.

Berenson plans to replace Guptill by moving junior forward Phil Di Giuseppe to the top line alongside freshman JT Compher and senior Derek DeBlois.

“It’s an opportunity for someone else to step in,” Berenson said.

Guptill’s scoring prowess — eight goals and nine assists — will be missed against the Gophers, which rank second nationally in team defense, averaging 1.96 goals against. Much of that is thanks to netminder Adam Wilcox, who is following a record-setting freshman campaign with an equally stellar sophomore one. In 27 games this season, he boasts a .930 save percentage and three shutouts.

Michigan will also have to make the adjustment to Minnesota’s larger ice surface, which rewards puck movement and individual players’ speed. The weekend could present a prime opportunity for forward Boo Nieves, the Wolverines’ fastest skater, to regain his scoring moxy — the sophomore recorded his only goal of the season Oct. 12.

“Is he going through a scoring slump? Absolutely,” Berenson said. “Is he playing well enough to get out of it? Yeah, I think he is.”

After surrendering seven goals in two games to Penn State, Michigan’s defensive unit will have its hands full with the Gophers, which rank seventh in the nation in scoring offense. And focusing on neutralizing only one forward won’t shut down the prolific attack. Seven Minnesota players have found twine at least eight times, led by Seth Ambroz’s 12 tallies.

“They’re an explosive team,” Berenson said. “All three of their forward lines are about equal.”

The Gophers have only lost once at home, and if they take the lead, they’re even harder to stop. Minnesota is 13-0-1 when up after the first period and 7-2 in one-goal games. But in their last four contests, the Gophers have scored just five times.

Both Minnesota and Michigan, college hockey’s winningest programs, posted disappointing results last weekend, but a split or sweep would put the Wolverines in a good position for the remainder of the Big Ten season. And when the final horn sounds Saturday night, it’ll mark the end of a series one team won’t want to forget.

“That’s the way it should be,” Berenson said. “Every weekend could change everything.”