Everyone attached to the Michigan hockey program has been trying to convince us all season: This is a different team than last year’s.

But when the Wolverines immediately fell into the same traps from the disappointing 2005-2006 season – weekend splits, underachieving, a faltering power play and countless defensive lapses – it was hard to believe them.

The second half of the season has been different. Michigan is 8-1, moving away from those bad habits and toward the success that’s been expected all along.

Saturday night, as the seniors gathered in a circle to kiss the block ‘M’ at center ice, the Wolverines added an emphatic line to their argument with one last regular-season win at Yost Ice Arena.

Senior Night was tarnished in 2006 when Michigan let a 3-0 lead over lowly Ferris State slip away in the final period.

Bitter memories of that heartbreaking overtime loss were imprinted on every Wolverine mind Saturday night.

Not again. This isn’t last year.

Though Western Michigan did its best to play spoiler, Michigan muscled its way to a close win on Senior Night – thanks to the outstanding play of goaltender Billy Sauer and, of course, the seniors.

Following the emotional victory, Michigan coach Red Berenson strolled into the postgame press conference, sat down and began speaking, unprompted.

“What a difference a year makes,” Berenson said. “Senior Night a year ago was a long night for our seniors. But tonight will be more enjoyable for all these guys.”

Player after player spoke of the need to erase last year’s final flop and get that last home victory, for the seniors and for the team.

They did that. And in the process, they separated themselves further from one of the worst seasons in Michigan hockey in more than a decade.

After starting 2007 sixth in the CCHA and moving into second place by the first weekend of February, Michigan has demonstrated it is capable of positive change.

The Wolverines seem to be improving every weekend. Confidence is blooming. A steady defense is buckling down. They’re on their way – something that could never really be said about last season’s hot-and-cold (but mostly cold) team. That squad was lucky to finish third in the CCHA.

“We’re coming together,” Berenson said. “The chemistry, and the mindset – it’s like a family. You just get closer and closer as things get more important, and I can see that with our team.”

Berenson’s right, things are getting more important. Six games remain in the season, and CCHA-leading Notre Dame, four points ahead of Michigan, isn’t showing any signs of faltering.

The media picked the Wolverines to finish atop the CCHA at the beginning of the season, and Michigan and its star-studded lineup should have been able to live up to that.

The Wolverines are taking the right steps toward at least coming close to that prediction. It all depends on if they can keep this hot streak up when they actually face a ranked opponent, and of course, on how the Irish play.

But for now, Michigan can bask in the happy ending to its Senior Night. I doubt it would have been so sweet if it weren’t for the difficult journey the Wolverines took to get there, overcoming the disappointment surrounding the program for the last year and a half.

Thanks to that hard work, the seniors were able to sigh with a smile as they said goodbye to their home arena.

Just how much will they miss Yost?

“Quite a bit,” said alternate captain Jason Dest said as he stared off at the ice he called home for four years. “This place is awesome. You never want to play your last game here.”

Fortunately for Dest and his classmates, their last game at Yost was worth celebrating. What a difference a year makes.

– Colvin wishes the luck of the Irish would just run out already. She can be reached at ambermco@umich.edu.

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