The Michigan hockey team’s change in mentality was wholly apparent from the moment it began around a month ago.

The Wolverines started to come to terms with an unpleasant reality: with a record well below .500, Michigan would not be securing a bid to the NCAA Tournament during the regular season. From there, the Wolverines started to think of themselves as the underdog. 

If they were to qualify for the NCAA Tournament at all, they would need to run the gauntlet at the Big Ten Tournament, winning three games in as many days — a scenario that players such as senior forward and captain Alex Kile were quick to point out as the team’s ultimate goal.

And so, the second half of the season became a trial run of sorts. How much desperation could this team play with, and how much progress could it show before the conference tournament? After all, the same version of the team that at one point held a 9-17-3 record wouldn’t be likely to make it past the first day.

But give Michigan credit: it took its blows, and while some may say the change in identity took too long to happen, it has the Wolverines experiencing the most success they’ve had all season. They have dropped only one of their past five games, with all four wins coming against ranked teams that have either locked up or are competing for NCAA Tournament bids: No. 13 Ohio State, No. 5 Minnesota and No. 15 Penn State.

And now, that long-awaited moment is here. Michigan is headed to Joe Louis Arena, where it will fight to keep its season — and in the case of the seniors, their careers — alive, starting with an opening-round game Thursday night against the Nittany Lions.

“I think we had beginner’s luck at the beginning of the year with a couple of wins when we didn’t really know ourselves yet,” said senior defenseman Nolan De Jong. “Then we obviously struggled through the heart of the season. Now we’ve come into our own a little bit. We understand how we have to play. …”

“We found our identity a little more, and we know we can grind out these games and hold a lead better now than in the middle of the season.”

The Wolverines are coming off the heels of a sweep against Penn State this past weekend that included a 4-0 shutout Saturday. Though the score was lopsided, Michigan was well aware that it didn’t play as well as it could have. Berenson pointed it out after the game, as did senior goaltender Zach Nagelvoort, who stood on his head and turned in a 46-save performance as the Nittany Lions outshot the Wolverines by a 2:1 ratio.

It was evidence that although Michigan’s record may be red-hot amidst its attitude adjustment, the team still has a lot of room for improvement. The Wolverines, with their abysmal Corsi numbers, don’t have the firepower to play the way they have in the past. Any postseason run will involve a combination of pucks bouncing the right way, the team’s trio of goaltenders continuing their stellar play and a tangible improvement on defense, which Michigan spent all week in practice working for.

“It all comes down to the F3 and F2,” said senior forward Alex Kile. “If you’re in on the forecheck and (Penn State) breaks the puck out, you’ve got to backcheck because their defensemen are really active and provide a lot of offense for them. That’s been our main focus. All their good chances this weekend were off rushes — 3-on-2s, 4-on-2s — with no backcheck, as we’ve found.”

Yet the Wolverines, thanks to Nagelvoort, withstood Saturday’s onslaught, and winning the game in that fashion only added to the growing belief within the team that they can write their own Cinderella story this weekend.

“I think this is definitely the most confident we’ve been all year,” De Jong said. “We know it’s going to be a challenge to beat the same team three times in a row because we know that we got outplayed at certain times on the weekend. But we definitely have that confidence and we know that we can win games whether they’re tight games or having to hold a lead. It’s the Big Ten Tournament and anything can happen — that’s the kind of attitude we’re going in with.”

Added Kile: “Once you’re realistic with yourself and realize other teams have better records and you are the underdog in most of the games you play, I think it benefits you. … The past three weeks have been the closest we’ve ever been as a team this year. We just have a belief in the locker room right now.”

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