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Liz Vukelich: What is Michigan hockey?

Paul Sherman/Daily
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By Liz Vukelich, Daily Sports Editor
Published January 27, 2013

KALAMAZOO — How do you know when you’re playing Michigan hockey?

It’s one of those phrases coaches and players like to throw around, but a difficult one to define. It’s generally used to encompass everything good about the Wolverines, and acts as a rallying cry to unite players under a common theme.

But after yet another Michigan loss — this time, a 5-1 decision to Western Michigan on Saturday night — it’s becoming pretty clear that a full 60 minutes of Michigan hockey is nowhere to be found.

At this point, it’s probably easier to instead ask: how do you know when you’re not playing Michigan hockey.

You know you’re not playing Michigan hockey when even taking a lead after a dominating first 20 minutes of play, your next response is to open the floodgates to an abundance of opponent’s goals.

You know you’re not playing Michigan hockey when coach Red Berenson — who usually tries to find some sort of silver lining in any scenario — comes out after a game and does nothing but shake his head.

And you definitely know you’re not playing Michigan hockey when you get swept in a commanding fashion by a team that hasn’t done that against the Wolverines since Feb. 22, 1986, a defeat that also mathematically eliminates any possibility of winning the regular-season CCHA championship — not that that was ever in the picture.

The last time the Broncos walked away with six points from a weekend with the Wolverines, Berenson was only in his second year of coaching. Michigan finished that season with a .316 winning percentage and bowed out early from the CCHA Tournament in the first round.

After this weekend, this season is looking to shape out the same way it did 27 years ago. And considering there are so many reasons for Michigan’s predicament, that’s hard for some to accept.

There were justifications for everything at the beginning of the season. First it was the goalies, then the injuries, then the poor defensive-zone coverage, then the stagnant offense. But now, the days of rationalizing loss after loss are gone.

“I’m tired of giving excuses,” Berenson said, exasperated. “We can’t keep giving excuses.”

The veteran coach has been careful not to place blame on particular individuals all season. Instead, he chastises the collective group, like the forward corps or defensemen.

But on Saturday, he sent very clear message to specific individuals.

“Our good teams have always been led by our seniors and juniors,” Berenson said. “The pressure is on the leadership of our upperclassmen. I’ve always said you’re as good as your senior class. If your senior class is not strong, you’re not going to have a strong team.”

This weekend, it was the freshmen that stole the show. On Friday, Boo Nieves weaved through a mass of Broncos, and then dangled the puck before dishing it to sophomore Phil Di Giuseppe, who buried it in the back of the net. Andrew Copp capitalized on Michigan’s power play early on Saturday to give Michigan a lead going into the first intermission.

Since starting their careers as Wolverines, these freshmen haven’t ever had a chance to see what true Michigan hockey is all about. Yet, they’re carrying the sense of urgency the upperclassmen seemed to have lost — or indefinitely misplaced.

There were glimpses of it this weekend, such as the penalty-kill unit that held the CCHA’s best power play to a single shot during one of the Broncos’ man advantages. But those glimpses aren’t translating into a full 60 minutes.

Next up on the Wolverines’ slate is a home-and-home series with Michigan State in the CCHA Battle For Not-Last Place. And if a confrontation with a bitter rival to keep their heads above water isn’t enough to light the Wolverines’ fire, then maybe this is the new Michigan hockey.

— Vukelich can be reached at elizavuk@umich.edu or on Twitter @LizVukelich


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