For the Michigan hockey team’s defensive unit, this season has entailed a lot of climbing.

After the team dug itself a hole early in the season, losing seven of its first eleven games, the 19th-ranked Wolverines have tried to climb out of it ever since. The defense, starting with junior goalie Bryan Hogan and extending outward, has the led the effort.

But a large part of the early season digging was due to defensive woes.

Soft goals, puck-handling mistakes and miscommunication between Hogan and the defensemen cost the Wolverines games against Boston University, Miami (Ohio) and Michigan State (multiple times), all teams in the running for the NCAA Tournament.

The most telling example came near the halfway point of the season against Ohio State. Despite giving up just 20 shots, defensive lapses led to a 5-3 loss and dropped the team to 10th place in the conference.

“It’s a game of mistakes,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said after the Dec. 4 loss. “If you make mistakes in your own zone, you’re going to pay for them.”

Tuesday night against Bowling Green, it was a different unit from the one that let up five goals to the Buckeyes. On the first shot of the game, Hogan kicked it out to a waiting Falcon. This time, junior Chad Langlais was there and cleared the puck away. The Wolverines turned away all ensuing shots, giving them their third shutout in nine games.

After that game, Berenson was singing a different tune than he had two months before.

“We were able to not give up the blue line as easy,” he said.

The transformation isn’t complete and it doesn’t even look apparent when glancing at the lineup. Michigan still hasn’t found its lineup. It continues to rotate freshman Lee Moffie, sophomore Greg Pateryn, and junior Tristin Llewellyn in and out of the lineup.

Berenson has specifically pointed to penalties as the reason Llewellyn and, to a lesser extent, Moffie have been sitting out games, giving Pateryn an opportunity for playing time. Pateryn has played just 19 games this season, but in recent weeks has established a presence in the lineup.

“There’s always going to be guys in and out,” assistant coach Billy Powers said. “It hasn’t been week-to-week, so guys have gotten a chance to play with each other and I think that’s why it’s been fairly seamless.”

But the conversion is visible is on the stat sheet. After being unranked for the first time in 12 years and limping to an 8-8-0 start, Michigan has cut down its goals against average by almost a half of a goal in its last 15 games. Cumulatively, the Wolverines are now fifth in the country.

“It’s been a concerted effort by everyone,” Powers said. “Our defense have done a nice job of standing up, helping each other, but they’re able to do that because the forwards are coming back.”

The stat sheet has been kind to the defensemen on the other end of the ice as well. After tallying just three goals in the first half, the heralded offensive power finally surfaced.

In three of the last four series, a defenseman has netted a goal, eight total in the last month.

“Whether it’s high-end assists plays or getting shots through or scoring goals, we’re asking our defense to be the fourth guy, getting up in the rush,” Powers said. “Being smart, but being ready if we can get over the blueline to contribute. Then of course when we cycle the puck and get it back to you, you have to make a play.”

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