Bennett week-to-week, leaves defense unhealthy again

Patrick Barron/Daily
Buy this photo

By Erin Lennon, Daily Sports Writer
Published February 24, 2014

On Friday, the question was who would fill in on defense. On Saturday, it was who would sit out.

But in each of the No. 14 Michigan hockey team’s two games against Penn State, the defense was questionable. And after a series split, it has little by way of answers.

After an egregious loss on Friday, Michigan coach Red Berenson chose to address the defense first, inserting forward-turned-defenseman Andrew Sinelli on a line with junior forward Phil Di Giuseppe and sophomore Boo Nieves in place of junior Alex Guptill. And with the previous night’s disappointment in mind, the Wolverines got off to a strong start.

Early in Saturday’s game, Berenson’s pick turned out to be a good one, but for reasons he hadn’t anticipated.

Midway through the first frame, senior defenseman Mac Bennett lay flat on his back, his gloves and stick scattered by his side. After a few minutes of uneasy silence, the captain — the heart of his unit, the penalty kill and this team — skated off the ice, clutching his left arm to his side. He was taken to the hospital for X-rays.

“It was good that we had Sinelli dressed, and he jumped back on defense,” Berenson said. “I wish it wouldn’t have happened at all, but at least we had six ‘D’ dressed.”

Berenson announced on Monday that Bennett is listed as week-to-week with an upper body injury, and will be evaluated again next week. He added that the injury is not as serious as originally anticipated, and that it’s not expected to be season ending.

“It’s hard when you’re a player and you’re injured and you’re a captain, to feel like you’re as much a part of the team as you were before you got hurt,” Berenson said.

On Friday, Sinelli and freshman defenseman Michael Downing both served an NCAA-sanctioned one-game suspension for their hits in a series against No. 2 Minnesota. Meanwhile, freshman Kevin Lohan made his first appearance since suffering a knee injury nearly four months ago.

Without two of its steadiest defensemen, the unit may not have been at full force, but the Wolverines couldn’t get out of first gear on the defensive end.

Costly, and often embarrassing, turnovers from both forwards and defensemen, seniors and freshmen, allowed the Nittany Lions to fire 44 shots at freshman goaltender Zach Nagelvoort, five of which found twine and secured Michigan’s fourth straight loss eventually in overtime — its second loss to Penn State.

“I was surprised that we did as well (in the first half of the season) as quick as we did, with such a young team, and with the changeover when Racine got hurt, and then Lohan got hurt,” Berenson said. “But I thought our team held up really well. We got off to a tough start in the second half. … We have to straighten it out and get on the right track.”

Saturday, then, was supposed to feature the complete, healthy package. Kevin Lohan had played well enough to earn a second starting nod, and Downing and Sinelli — who moved back to fill in for Lohan in November — were available to play. It was the first time since Lohan’s injury that the unit was fully in tact.

But without their captain, and Sinelli filling in his place, the Wolverines held the high-volume shooting Nittany Lions to just 20 shots and two goals. The defense was not impenetrable, and questions about next weekend’s pairings resurfaced as soon as Bennett hit the ice.

There is one certainty: Michigan will be without its leader for its matchup with Ohio State, a team that nearly toppled the then-hot Wolverines twice in December. The question now is less about who to replace Bennet’s talent on the ice with, and more about how this team will respond without his effort on and off of it.

“I think they’re as ready as they’ve ever been to pick up some of the slack,” Berenson said.

Though the captain will attend daily team meetings, Michigan will rely on forward alternate captains Derek De Blois and Andrew Copp during the game.

“He brings a certain energy to the rink and guys feed off that, so it’s different not having our leader,” Copp said. “But at the same time, when one guy goes down, the next guy steps up. He’s moving the baton on down, so we gotta pick it up and make up for his absence.”

And if nothing else, Bennett will lead via other modes of communication.

“Congrats on the win,” he wrote in a group text message to his team Saturday. “I heard you guys dominated pretty much. I didn’t get to watch, but I was following on Twitter.”