On ice hockey: Michigan’s biggest test of the season comes this weekend

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Daily Sports Writer
Published November 2, 2009

Before too much is made of the Michigan hockey team’s pair of wins against Lake Superior State last weekend, just remember who comes to town on Friday.

That’s right — No. 1 Miami (Ohio).

While the 5-1 and 6-3 victories in Sault Ste. Marie are nice, they will be quickly forgotten if the success can’t be duplicated against the RedHawks.

“This will be a good test for us, just to see where we are,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “If you have any chance of finishing ahead of a team in this league, then you have to win the series against them ... These games will decide the order of finish down the road.”

But for No. 4 Michigan, this weekend is about more than just end-of-the-season conference standings. It’s a chance to gain confidence against the best of the best and an opportunity to answer questions that have lingered for the first month of the season.

For instance, will the Wolverines even show up for three full periods?

They entered Friday’s contest against the Lakers with an offense prone to long, dormant stretches. It had been held scoreless in four of its previous six frames and on its previous 10 power plays.

And despite the 11 tallies on the weekend, the inconsistency continued. This was especially true on Saturday, when after one period, Lake Superior State had doubled Michigan’s shot total.

Whether Michigan maintains focus for the full 60 minutes will be answered on the scoreboard at the end of each game. The Wolverines are talented enough to beat Lake Superior State after taking a period off — but not enough to beat the RedHawks.

“We just gotta get the job done,” freshman forward Chris Brown said. “Miami is not going to give us just two periods. They’re going to make us play all three.”

Another looming question is whether the Wolverines can limit the neutral zone and offensive zone turnovers, which would provide a big lift for goalie Bryan Hogan and the defensemen. The miscues haven’t led to many goals on the other end, but it’s a good bet that they will against the highest-ranked team in the nation.

“A turnover happens because I’ve got the puck and I make a mistake — I force it into traffic or I try to beat a guy one-on-one and he strips me and goes the other way,” Berenson said. “So part of your defense is what you do when you have the puck.”

Limiting these unnecessary turnovers will pay dividends threefold. Pressure will be sustained in the offensive zone instead of Michigan’s, fewer odd-man rushes will occur and fewer penalties will be taken in an attempt to recover from the turnover.

If mistakes leading to chances for the opponent are trimmed, other teams will have a tough time controlling the tempo of the game and pushing pucks past Hogan. And that includes the RedHawks.

The final question, and the most important one, is whether the Wolverines can make a statement and gain much-needed momentum as they head into the meat of the CCHA schedule.

Michigan already had a chance to knock off defending champion Boston University. But that game was in the rowdy Agganis Arena in Boston, and it was settled by a rare Hogan blunder behind the net with 2:30 left.

This is different. It looks like Berenson has finally found offensive line combinations that clicked. The defense has jelled almost perfectly, especially on the penalty kill. Hogan is beginning to find a rhythm. And this time, the RedHawks will have the hostile Yost Ice Arena crowd to contend with.

Really, there’s no better time for Michigan to answer these questions, garner its first win over a ranked team, and prove itself worthy of its top-five rank.

After all, home games against the nation’s top team aren’t exactly easy to come by.