Michigan looks to stay in contention for postseason berth with sweep this weekend

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By Greg Garno, Daily Sports Editor
Published February 27, 2014

The Michigan hockey team finds itself in an uncomfortable position this weekend.

No longer can it rest on its laurels from its impressive first half of the season. No longer can it rely on stellar goaltending to bail it out. No longer can it afford to be inexperienced.

This week, the 13th-ranked Wolverines will play a home-and-home series with Ohio State (5-6-3-2 Big Ten, 5-10-3 overall) and this weekend the Wolverines will play with their figurative backs against the wall.

“We can’t afford to lose any more games and I think everyone in that locker room knows that,” said senior forward Derek DeBlois. “We’re fighting for a playoff spot every day.”

Added Michigan coach Red Berenson: “Everyone is getting better and we may not have gotten better as a team. A lot of our individuals have continued to improve but has our whole team gotten better? I don't think so.”

Michigan (7-6-1-1, 15-10-3)sits eight points behind second-place Wisconsin and a bye in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, and just three points ahead of the fourth-place Buckeyes.

A loss would not only mathematically eliminate the Wolverines from finishing in the top two of the conference, but would also put them on the bubble of a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

Standing in their way will be a pair of forwards that lead Ohio State’s offense, which sits No. 7 in the nation. Together, Ryan Dzingel and Tanner Fritz have combined for 32 points this season on a team that averages 3.39 goals per game.

So to help his team prepare to shut them down, Berenson distributed an article on the importance of defense. It’s been going on longer than any senior can remember, and no one knows who wrote it, but it preaches that defense doesn’t require a special skillset so much as a special mindset.

“Defense is all heart and all will,” said senior forward Luke Moffatt. “Offense might not come every day, but with defense you can show up every day.”

Unfortunately, Michigan will be missing one of its hardest workers in senior defenseman Mac Bennett. The captain will miss the weekend after he suffered an “upper-body injury” in the second game of last weekend’s series against Penn State.

Questions also surround the goaltending position, after freshman netminder Zach Nagelvoort allowed five goals — albeit with a porous defense in front of him — on Friday night. Sophomore goaltender Steve Racine held the Nittany Lions to two goals, which makes the decision for the weekend increasingly harder.

Nearly one year ago against the Buckeyes, Berenson started Racine in the hope of sparking his offense. The result was an 8-1-1 record in the final 10 games.

The loss puts more pressure on forwards to shut down Ohio State’s potent offensive duo. Berenson will have to excel at making line changes this weekend to match his top line with Buckeyes’ on a consistent basis.

But Michigan’s forwards also proved they are capable after holding Penn State to 20 shots last weekend.

“The fact is that we need to play better and find a way to generate more wins on a consistent basis,” Berenson said. “We have to play a lot better than we have in recent games. It’s that simple. If we do well, then we’ll have a chance of having a good Big Ten Tournament and then being an option in the NCAA. If we don’t win, then we don't make the tournament and won't deserve it.

“We have to start playing better, starting this Friday.”