Something to Build On
Michigan Looks to Right Ship Ahead of Postseason
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
Even without the history, there's a lot riding on Michigan's performance this weekend with Ferris State in town.
The Wolverines are currently ninth in the CCHA. With the league's top five seeds receiving byes in the first round of the tournament, the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-place teams host first-round series. Michigan is just one point short of saving themselves a bus ride next weekend.
The history, though, is undeniable. The 2012-13 season has been, as Michigan coach Red Berenson called it, "a year from hell." The talented club from Ann Arbor has had little to boast about this season. As rare as that is for Berenson's team, the Wolverines are focused solely on entering the CCHA tournament in the best position possible.
They aren't thinking about the 22 consecutive NCAA tournament berths. They aren't concerned about the difficult road they face in their conference playoffs. It's just about points this weekend against the fourth-place Bulldogs, a team that took two games from the Wolverines in Big Rapids, Mich., earlier this year.
"The streak speaks for itself," Michigan captain A.J. Treais said. "This program is pretty special. It's something you're aware of when you get here. There are high expectations when you come to Michigan, and that's part of the reason you come here. Obviously, you don't want to be the team that breaks it; but we can't worry about that, and we aren't."
Last weekend, Michigan swept Ohio State in Columbus to strengthen their push for home ice. The games were hardly easy wins for the Wolverines, but they showed signs of a team finally finding its feet.
Friday night, they entered the third period with a 2-0 lead. Each team scored three times in the final 20 minutes, and Michigan escaped with a 5-3 win. Not a perfect period, but the Wolverines battled. And that's something that's been missing for long stretches of the season.
The scoring has been there, but the commitment defensively hasn't.
"We've scored enough goals to be competitive this year," Berenson said. "We've just given up too many goals to win games. It's happened for a number of reasons, whether it's goaltending problems or defensive breakdowns or guys not backchecking effectively."
On Saturday, Michigan improved as the game progressed on both ends, scoring three goals in the third period after it began deadlocked. The Wolverines didn't allow any this time around either. Freshman goaltender Steve Racine performed well over the weekend, at least well enough to earn his team crucial points. Berenson believes the club's goaltending woes this season have as much to do with a lack of support throughout the club as they do with poor play from the netminders.
It's difficult to dismiss a season's worth of mistakes after one successful weekend. Berenson just saw improvement to believe his club is ready to navigate the difficult path it paved to another CCHA championship. It's not the message he's sending to his team just yet, but he believes it's the way his players will approach the next two weekends.
"I think it's part of the conversation the players had. None of it came from us, but that tradition means a lot to them and us," Berenson said. "It's part of the reason players come to Michigan. We have a chance to take a step toward that this weekend. The goal right now is just to get home ice. Then we'll have to get wins on the road to get to Joe Louis. Once we get to Joe Louis, anything can happen. But that all starts with winning this weekend against a good Ferris State team."
The Bulldogs, themselves, need a strong weekend to secure a first-round bye. For clubs in the CCHA, playing Michigan is always enough of a reason to be at their best. The points at stake this weekend in Ann Arbor will decide the destination for both clubs next week.
Treais, like his coach, saw positive signs in Columbus last weekend. Twenty players working toward the same goal: a strong performance in all three zones. Mistakes happen, of course, but moving past them to secure wins is the sign of great teams. The Wolverines did that against the Buckeyes.
"Right now, we need all four lines playing hard for 60 minutes," Treais said. "Last weekend, everyone was going all night and playing good defense. That's what we need to do to win games. We can't worry about the streak or any of that stuff. We played well last weekend, and we need to do it again."