What happened last year?

Last year’s season could best be summed up as a “successful failure.” The Wolverines exceeded expectations in the regular season, amassing an impressive 27-5-4 record before the playoffs. But once the bar was raised, Michigan didn’t come through when it mattered most, losing a 5-4 overtime game to Notre Dame in the Frozen Four.

Michigan opened up the season strong, going 13-1, with a win over eventual national champion Boston College. The Wolverines continued their success, winning the Great Lakes Invitational for the first time since 1996, and went on to win both the CCHA regular season and playoff crowns.

The Wolverines then cruised through the East Regional of the NCAA tournament with a 5-1 win over Niagara and a 2-0 shutout of Clarkson. Michigan left for Denver confident in its chances at the Frozen Four.

Though Michigan can’t call last season a failure, it would like to forget its last game and focus on getting back to the Frozen Four. Last season, the pre-season expectations were low. This season the hopes of fans and the team themselves are high — anything less than a national championship will be a disappointment.

How will the shootout and the new two-referee, two-linesman system affect the Wolverines?

During overtime games, many fans will secretly hope for the five-minute extra session to pass with the score still deadlocked. This year, the CCHA decided to eliminate regular season ties and hold a shootout after overtime. Every home shootout, especially the first, will likely blow the roof off of Yost Ice Arena.

Michigan benefits greatly from the new rule, because it possesses a number of talented skaters and slick puckhandlers. Sophomore forwards Carl Hagelin, Louie Caporusso and Aaron Palushaj have all been mentioned by assistant coach Mel Pearson as potential shooters. Pearson said he believed the coaches have one candidate they all agree on, but differed on who should fill the remaining two spots. It’s hard to argue with Pearson’s short list. It consists of three double-digit goal scorers from last season who are talented with the puck.

Regarding the extra official, if the exhibition weekend was any indication, special teams units across the conference will prove more critical this season. Michigan took 22 combined penalties against the U.S. Under-18 National Team Development Program and Waterloo, seven of them for slashing or hooking. With the additional referee, the penalty box doorman will be busy and the flow of the game will be disrupted. The Wolverines don’t have any domineering enforcers, so the extra official shouldn’t hamper them any more than the rest of the conference teams.

What impact will the five freshmen have?

Despite the departure of last season’s first-line forwards, Michigan coach Red Berenson could have enough depth at the position to at least offset the loss in scoring. Berenson is particularly confident in freshman Robbie Czarnik, who is expected to anchor a third line that Berenson has called a potential “game-breaker.”

The Washington, Mich. native has had junior Brandon Naurato and sophomore Ben Winnett on the wings for most of the preseason, though junior alternate captain Chris Summers replaced Naurato in Tuesday’s practice. Berenson doesn’t believe the Wolverines need a clear-cut top line to be successful, but he does want the third line to score enough to earn opponents’ respect. Czarnik could be the third unit’s biggest threat.

The other freshman forwards are David Wohlberg and Luke Glendening. Wohlberg centered the fourth line in both exhibition games and will likely play there. Glendening’s role is less certain, though he registered a couple of nice hits and a scoring chance against Waterloo, impressing Berenson.

Defensemen Brandon Burlon and Greg Pateryn round out a loaded defensive corps and are part of the reason the coaching staff felt comfortable moving Summers to forward in the offseason. Both will get ice time and will likely pair up with veteran partners who can help cover for any freshmen mistakes that occur in the beginning of the season.

How will Michigan replace last season’s top line of Porter, Kolarik and Pacioretty?

What do you get when you take away two 30-goal scorers, one Hobey Baker award winner and the entire top line? You get this year’s Michigan hockey team. It’s an understatement to say that Kevin Porter and Chad Kolarik paced the Wolverine offense last season. Every weekend night they lit up the lamp with highlight-reel goals that excited the Yost Ice Arena crowd. With the duo gone, how will Michigan replace their offense?

They probably won’t. Instead, the Wolverines will have to rely on balanced offense among the three top lines and not rely on any one or two players.

“I think we might have three decent lines that give us some balanced scoring,” Berenson said. “I don’t know if we have any 30 goal scorers at this juncture, so I think we’ll have to rely on more than one line on a given night.”

The movement of Summers from defense to forward should help ease this transition and provide leadership to a group of young forwards. The other question is whether Michigan’s large sophomore class will continue to improve. Collectively, if Summers has a solid season and the sophomores fill the void left by Porter and Kolarik, Michigan will likely continue its success on the ice.

Is this Michigan coach Red Berenson’s last year?

Entering his 25th season behind the bench, Berenson is being asked the same question more and more often: Is this the last season?

“I just look old, and 25 (years) might seem like a lot,” said Berenson, who turns 69 in December. “But I’ll tell you what, the first five years took about 20 years, and the next 20 years took about five. That’s really how it’s been. Once we started winning, it’s gone by so fast and been so much fun compared to the first five years.”

Berenson is in the final season of his current contract, which he signed three years ago. At CCHA Media Day last month, he didn’t give any indication as to whether he’ll sign an extension. If he does extend his contract, he said he plans on fulfilling it. And although reaching the quarter-century mark seems like a great accomplishment, it’s not why he’s stuck around so long.

“It’s a nice number, but people that worked on the railroad worked for 40 years or whatever, I mean a long time,” Berenson said. “There are coaches in our league who have coached longer than I have. I just happened to get a late start.”

Who’s starting in goal for the Wolverines?

Going into last season, the starting goalie job was up for grabs before sophomore Bryan Hogan was sidelined with mononucleosis. Senior Billy Sauer rode the momentum of a 22-2 start through the whole season, playing better than in his first two seasons.

But once Michigan returned to Denver, where Sauer let up seven goals in the NCAA Tournament two years ago, for the Frozen Four, Sauer’s past struggles in the postseason Tournament reemerged. The senior allowed three goals in the first period before Hogan took over between the pipes. The Wolverines stormed back, but fell short in overtime.

This year, Hogan is healthy and will see more time in the crease. Berenson is committed to splitting time between the goalies, but the rotation will likely be modified on a week-to-week basis once the season starts.

There is no doubt goaltending will be a strength for Michigan, but from an individual perspective, it might be difficult for Sauer and Hogan to get in a rhythm by splitting starts. If one starts to struggle, Berenson won’t hesitate to put him on the bench.

“Basically, it’s in their hands more than any of ours,” Michigan goalie coach Josh Blackburn said. “We’re going to try and let them show us who the starter is.”

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