The Michigan hockey team couldn’t have been too excited when coach Red Berenson had his players to gather at the south end of the rink towards the end of Tuesday’s practice.

They knew what was coming.

Berenson held a stopwatch and made sure that when each group of players approached the red line, they understood their goal. The Wolverines started the workout rigorously — they had to skate down and back twice in the time designated by Berenson — but exhaustion soon set in.

Players bent over to regain their breath. And sophomore David Wohlberg, who missed last Friday’s game due to illness, had to stop and skate to the bench. A trash can stood in front of him.

When Wolverines began to pour off the ice, team trainer Rick Bancroft stopped Wohlberg to remind him that he still had to do the last interval he had missed.

Without hesitation, the sophomore forward turned around and skated the rounds he still owed Berenson.

Wohlberg and his teammates know that it’s gut-check time for the Wolverines.

Don’t give up on this team just yet. Michigan (7-7 CCHA, 12-10 overall) still has a chance to turn its season from ordinary to NCAA tournament-bound, and it starts this weekend against Alaska.

In the past four years, four CCHA teams have made the 16-team tournament each season, and Berenson has repeatedly made it clear that one of the team’s goals is to finish the season in the top four of the conference. But there isn’t much room left for error.

Michigan faced a similar situation a year ago when it was 14-6 after the Great Lakes Invitational in December 2008. Granted, the Wolverines had four more wins, but they dominated the second half of the season and lost only three games the rest of the year.

“They were expecting a lot of things from us (last year),” senior captain Chris Summers said. “We expect a lot of things from ourselves as well. Just fine tuning things and having the right attitude I think is the most important thing.”

Michigan is taking the right approach to the uphill climb they face in the last 15 games of the season — treating each game as if it’s the most important one of the season. And it’s easy to talk the talk, but now Michigan has three season-defining chances to walk the walk.

Currently, the Wolverines are smack dab in the middle of a tight CCHA race, in a three-way tie for seventh place in the conference with Nebraska-Omaha and Notre Dame. But Michigan faces a slew of conference contenders in the next three weekends: No. 1 (tied) Ferris State , No. 3 Michigan State and No. 4 Alaska.

The Wolverines have backed themselves into a corner due to early-season splits with Ohio State and Bowling Green. And getting swept by Michigan State and Miami (Ohio) sure didn’t help. Now, Michigan cannot afford to get fewer than four or five wins in these upcoming six games.

A 23-14 record is within the Wolverines’ reach and would put them on par with those teams from the CCHA that have made the NCAA tournament in recent years. But that would mean Michigan could only lose four games the rest of the season.

The 2009-10 Wolverines haven’t had a winning streak longer than three games, though. And Michigan hasn’t shown that it can perform against the conference’s best. Those skeptical of a big turnaround have all the evidence they need. The Wolverines have also been inconsistent in all phases of five-on-five hockey this season.

Still, all it takes is one solid weekend, one sweep — or maybe three — to turn around a season. It is still possible.

A top-four finish in the conference would also give the Wolverines a first-round bye in the CCHA tournament. The momentum of a second-half surge could push Michigan to win the Mason Cup and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Now, all the Wolverines have to do is win 11 of their last 15 games.

Berenson said his freshmen have grown up and his seniors are realizing their time is running out. Like last year, the team is starting to get it.

And the CCHA is strong enough this year that Berenson believes up to five teams from the conference could make the NCAA tournament.

“If you finish in the top four at least you’re putting yourself in a position to do well in the playoffs, Joe Louis, and then see what happens,” Berenson said. “Because how we do from here until the end, every game is just as important.”

Crazier things have happened. With Berenson in charge, we do know that no one will cut any corners — or miss a sprint for that matter.

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