Imagine if Red Berenson was your babysitter.

The Michigan hockey coach has done his fair share of coddling this year, managing the fragile psyche of a team that lost five straight in November, has hovered around .500 all season and is in danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in 20 years.

“I think there’s been more hand holding and ass-kicking than in recent years,” Berenson said. “You’re babysitting more than you’re coaching. This isn’t new information. This is a reminder, ‘C’mon let’s go.’ This is something you are capable of. Do you have the confidence to do it? Do you need to be pushed? Pulled? Coddled? And so on. I think that’s where we are.”

Berenson has dealt with bringing a large crew of freshman along before, but this season has been almost a collective psychiatry session. And it’s around this time of the season that the younger players start coming into their own.

Since the turn of the calendar year, Michigan is 4-1-1 with its tie and loss coming in close contests against quality opponents — Ferris State and Alaska, ranked third and fifth in the conference respectively.

The 20th-ranked Wolverines (9-8-1-0 CCHA, 14-11-1 overall) have won games both with their defense and offense, in blowouts and even comebacks. Michigan has made a drastic turnaround from those early November blues, which included getting swept by in-state rival Michigan State (11-5-4-1, 16-8-4).

Berenson and his players feel they have finally brought it all together.

“I thought we had glimpses of it the first handful of games,” senior defenseman Steve Kampfer said of the team’s improved play. “I thought we had glimpses of it all along. Just as the games went on, we started keeping it together. We started playing a lot more like we were in those glimpses. We started to play those whole 60 minutes, like we’ve been talking about all year.”

The 12th-ranked Spartans, whom the Wolverines take on this weekend, are also new and improved. Michigan State, after a woeful 10-23-5 season a year ago, surprised the CCHA with a turnaround of its own.

Its offense, last in the country last year with 1.63 goals per game, now leads the conference with an overall 3.29 scoring clip.

Michigan will have to continue the recent trend of strong defense this weekend if the Wolverines are going to slow the Spartans’ offense and gain valuable ground in the CCHA standings. Michigan State boasts likely Hobey Baker candidate Corey Tropp, who leads a balanced Spartan attack with his conference-leading 36 points.

But with Michigan’s aggressiveness on the ice lately, Berenson thinks the Wolverines have caught up to Michigan State and actually have the advantage entering this weekend’s series.

Michigan will present a different look from the last time they played the Spartans as not one of the four offensive lines has remained the same. Berenson has also tweaked the defensemen a bit by switching pairings and giving more playing time recently to sophomore Greg Pateryn over junior Tristin Llewellyn. But he acknowledged an improvement in the overall play of the blue line in addition to the pairing changes.

They have allowed only 1.5 goals per game and have two shutouts this month, while the offense has scored nearly four goals per contest. And in the past three seasons, Berenson’s teams have lost a combined 10 games from January to the end of the season.

The Spartans are currently second in the conference thanks their offense, but Michigan is still within striking distance at seventh place, only 10 points behind Michigan State in the standings.

In their first series, Michigan was plagued by costly turnovers and mistakes on the defensive end of the ice, while the offense couldn’t finish off scoring opportunities.

The same broken-record explanation could have been used to explain many of the Wolverines’ losses in the first half of the season. But like Michigan teams of the past, Berenson’s Wolverines have made strides to start the calendar year.

“(The) second half always depends on your defense,” Berenson said. “Your defense, your goalie, your forwards, your back-checking, your defensive unit. We shut other teams down so we don’t give up more than two goals a game. (Then) we have a chance of winning. … It starts right there, and that doesn’t have a lot to do with talent.”

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