Things have looked easy for the Michigan hockey team this season. The Wolverines are ranked first in the country and have lost just twice.

Brian Merlos
Junior Mark Mitera and the Wolverines chalk their good fortunes up to practices that are more intense than in years prior. (ZACHARY MEISNER/Daily)

But what few fans see is the intensity in practice from Monday to Thursday. Players aren’t just competing on weekends – they’re fighting during practice just to make the lineup.

This season, forwards Brandon Naurato, Danny Fardig and Brian Lebler, who were regulars last year, have sat out of the lineup at times with freshmen taking their spots on the ice.

Players say the increased level of intrasquad competition has helped the team stay focused in game situations.

“I think practices are probably the same, but guys just carry it over into games a lot better this year – probably because of the youth of our team,” junior alternate captain Mark Mitera said.

Freshman Max Pacioretty credited Michigan’s comeback wins, like the 4-2 victory Michigan earned in early December at Bowling Green, to the hard work that begins at practice.

Although the Wolverines haven’t played an official game since Dec. 29, the battle for ice time in practice is effectively simulating game situations. The talented freshmen have driven up the intensity in practice, not just by fighting for spots in the lineup but also with seemingly endless effort.

The intensity has added a little jump to the coaches’ steps, too. With 12 freshmen on the team, the coaching staff is doing much more teaching than it has in the past.

“We set a standard as coaches this year that we couldn’t accept a lot of last year’s mediocre efforts, and it was going to start in practice,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said.

Despite the competition, this team is one of the most cohesive in recent memory.

Unlike in past seasons, there are no divisions between classes or positions. Senior captain Kevin Porter called this year’s squad the “closest” of his four years at Michigan.

“Everyone’s competitive with each other,” freshman Max Pacioretty said. “Then, after the drill, we’re laughing, joking around with each other. It makes everything that much easier.”

While the team has usually spent about half an hour less time on the ice each afternoon than it did last season, the time has been used more efficiently. There is rarely a wasted moment as players and coaches maneuver quickly from drill to drill.

For the most part, Michigan (18-2-0 overall, 11-1-0 CCHA) has plowed through its opponents this season as rapidly as it has gone through practice. But just as practice is not as effortless as it might appear to the casual observer, Michigan’s first half was no walk in the park.

To start the second half of the season, Berenson expects this weekend’s series against lowly Western Michigan (6-13-1, 2-10-0) to be tough, too.

All conference matchups are, if you ask a coach. But Berenson knows even tougher weekends against Notre Dame, Michigan State and Miami (Ohio) are looming in the next month. With his team working together, “working hard and working smart,” he’s confident Michigan will be up to the test.

“These guys are like a family,” Berenson said. “Families don’t always agree but they should stick together – that’s always been our theory. We keep reminding them: We may not have the best players but we could have the best team.”

Michigan vs Western Michigan

Matchup: Purdue 6-13-1 Michigan 18-2

When: Tomorrow, 7 P.M.

Where: Yost Ice Arena

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