Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson just chuckled when asked about the rapid rate at which his defensive corps seems to be dropping.

How could he not at least try to make light of a serious situation? Since the fifth-ranked Wolverines’ season started, injuries to junior defensemen Jon Merrill and Kevin Clare appeared to cripple Michigan’s blue line — a group that according to Berenson during the preseason, carried the bulk of the team’s depth.

Injuries or not, the Wolverines (1-1) still have to play Bentley — their last non-conference opponent before CCHA play begins — on Friday. So instead of focusing on who won’t be on the ice this weekend, the team is focused its positive energy on players with a new opportunity to step up.

Sophomore defenseman Mike Szuma, who spent all but two games as a scratch last season, is finally getting his chance to prove himself on the blue line and is paired with fellow sophomore Brennan Serville.

Berenson says he knows Szuma the teammate and scholar. But he’s not too familiar with Szuma the defenseman.

“(Szuma) worked hard in practice all last year,” Berenson said. “He’s a terrific kid (and) has a great attitude. Now he’ll be tested as a player.”

According to senior defenseman and captain Lee Moffie, Berenson’s vote of confidence in Szuma reflected into a very strong and enthusiastic week of practice for the young blue liner.

But Michigan isn’t just relying on the defensemen from the lower rungs of the depth chart to pick up where Merrill and Clare left off. Berenson is known for recruiting strong, two-way forwards, and this weekend, he said he expects them to pick up the slack.

“The trouble with the start of the season is everyone is anticipating playing with the puck and how many goals (they’re) going to score and how many points (they’re) going to get,” Berenson said. “I think it’s huge that everyone gets into good work habits without the puck. We’ll be emphasizing that the rest of the week.”

The Wolverines certainly don’t expect a cakewalk from the Falcons (1-0). Though sometimes it appears easy to overlook non-conference teams, Berenson reminds the team time and time again just how important those wins are when NCAA Tournament berths are given in March.

Case in point: The first series of the season against RIT, when Michigan allowed seven goals over the course of the weekend.

Granted, there was some shaky goaltending by the freshmen duo of Steve Racine and Jared Rutledge, but the turnovers and missed goal opportunities were all the result of the other five players on the ice.

“I think we can do a lot of things better,” Berenson said. “Some of the little, subtle things. We’re still a work in progress.”

Unlike most series, Michigan only faces a single game against the Bentley instead of the usual two, meaning the Wolverines will have to make quick work of the Falcons on Friday before enjoying the rest of their weekend.

For the players, this provides more of a mental advantage.

“Sometimes you can overlook the Friday games,” Moffie said. “It’s almost better in some ways. Right now our only focus is Friday. That’s it, get the job done, and that’ll be the weekend.”

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