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Notebook: Defense down, offense picks up slack in split against Wildcats

Erin Kirkland/Daily
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BY LIZ NAGLE
Daily Sports Writer
Published November 3, 2012

MARQUETTE — With highly touted defensive lines consisting of a ninth-overall NHL Entry Draft pick, a pair of returning veterans and a preseason First Team All-CCHA member, the No. 7 Michigan hockey team was tagged with high expectations.

But there’s been a spotlight shift.

Things quickly went awry as the Wolverines’ anchor started to collapse with a slew of injuries. Michigan coach Red Berenson rearranged the blue line each week after exhibition and non-conference collisions. With junior Jon Merrill, junior Kevin Clare and sophomore Brennan Serville missing various amounts of ice time, the remaining defensemen have struggled to find chemistry.

The Wolverines’ defense sits last in the CCHA, surrendering 3.43 goals per game. Though the penalty kill sat atop the charts entering conference play with a perfect record of kills, Michigan dropped to the bottom half at 82.1 percent.

The Wolverines have compensated with better offensive production as of late, headlined by Friday night’s performance against Northern Michigan.

Michigan’s deflating defense and penalty woes continued before the final frame. The Wolverines found themselves in a 4-1 hole after giving up four straight goals in the second period — three on the Wildcats’ power play.

But with a quick shift in momentum, the Michigan offense surged with a trio of goals, including senior forward A.J. Treais’s game-tying tally with 0.6 seconds left on the clock.

“Anything can happen in the last minute,” Treais said. “I don’t think anyone thought we were down and out. If they could score four goals in one period, I think we could too.”

Treais has been the on-ice leader the Wolverines need since the losses in the defensive arsenal. He notched his seventh goal of the season on Saturday and sealed the shootout victory, slipping one past Northern Michigan goalie Jared Coreau.

Michigan leads the CCHA in registering 4.43 goals per game, and that output can be credited to Treais and the spreading-out of offensive efforts. With 14 different players finding the back of the net this season, the Wolverines look to rely on their depth of forwards while the defense recovers.

The defense continued to struggle on Saturday, and the offense tried to make another comeback from a 4-1 deficit, netting back-to-back goals against the Wildcats in the middle of the third period.

Treais ignited the rally attempt on a power play goal and junior defenseman Mac Bennett followed suit less than a minute later with an assist by senior forward Kevin Lynch. But that was all the offense could manage.

“This team has a lot of pride,” Berenson said. “They expect to do well and they learned last night when they fall behind, you never give up because you always can get back in the game. And we did that last night and we did it again tonight, so that’s good — that’s the one thing we learned on this trip that we can come from behind.

“On the flip side, you can’t get behind like that and have to play desperation hockey.”

MOFFIE AND BENNETT PAIR UP: Senior defenseman Lee Moffie sat on the bench in the empty Berry Events Center before the faceoff against Northern Michigan, with Bennett giving him an encouraging back rub.

Berenson put the two together for the first time this year against the Wildcats and he was pleased with the pairing.

Before the first road trip, Berenson called Moffie a “notoriously slow starter” and expected him to start “playing like a senior.” But he also noted the duo’s progress in the week of practice leading up to the northbound series.

“I like playing with Moffie,” Bennett said. “In Moffie, I’ve got a two-way defenseman, who can jump up and who can cut for me. So with the two of us together we’re able to do some kind of an offensive flare.”

It seemed that in playing with Moffie, Bennett was able to open up offensively. The Narragansett, R.I. native opened the scoring against Northern Michigan with a top-shelf wrister off of freshman forward Justin Selman’s assist.

Bennett recorded seven shots, two goals and two assists against the Wildcats. Him and Moffie have combined for eight assists, four goals and 19 blocks this season.

“I think Mac, with the big ice up here, I think he remembers how well he played up here last year, so it can be a mental thing,” Berenson said. “You could see he started off really well in the game and had a good game.”

RACINE SPLITS CONSECTUVE STARTS: It seemed that the goalie question is starting to answer itself.

Though Berenson weighs the options each week, potentially splitting time between freshman netminders Steve Racine and Jared Rutledge, only Racine saw ice time against Northern Michigan.

On Friday, Racine allowed a quad of goals to sneak between the pipes, but he wasn’t entirely to blame, considering the Wildcats’ man advantage and the Wolverines’ penalties.

After his collegiate shootout debut, Racine was tabbed with the victory, which gave him the starting spot in Saturday’s lineup.

“He battled,” Treais said. “I think he did a really good job in the shootout. He stayed calm and just made the saves he needed to make — he didn’t try do anything out of his element.”

On Saturday, Racine let four early goals find the net in similar fashion to the night before. But in both contests, he found his footing deep in the game and totaled 42 saves.

“He didn’t get off to a very good start,” Berenson said. “And then, I thought, in the third period, when the game was on the line, he gave us a chance. … Good for him.”