Last season, the Michigan hockey team had the “horses to get into the race,” but as assistant coach Mel Pearson described last Thursday, the team just was a little behind at the finish line.

A year removed from their CCHA Tournament title, the Wolverines are still “knocking on the door,” according to Pearson, and the tools to finally break down the door and grab Michigan’s first NCAA championship since 1998 are present once again in Ann Arbor.

“There’s been a lot of those years where you feel you have a chance, and you have the team capable of winning it, and then from that point, a lot of things have to fall into place,” Pearson said. “But are we due? We’re probably due … Now, do we have the right players, in the right frame of mind?

“This time of year, we’re right there again. When you look at it, are there teams out there you just can’t beat? I don’t think that’s the case.”

Since the beginning of the calendar year, the Wolverines have an 11-4 conference record, sweeping five-of-seven weekend series, an impressive statistic considering they had swept just two opponents — Bowling Green and Lake Superior State — prior to The Big Chill at the Big House in mid-Dec.

Even with the team’s 11th CCHA regular season title to its name — clinched over Northern Michigan — senior co-captain Carl Hagelin and Pearson reiterated similar sentiments: the Wolverines still haven’t reached their top-end yet this late in the year.

“As a coach, you’re trying to get everybody’s best game the same night, and I don’t know if you’re ever going to get that,” Pearson said. “But that’s what you’re trying to work toward. We’re getting closer. This time of year seems to bring out the best in our team … There’s something different about this time of year. Hopefully, last Saturday in Marquette was just a sign of that.”

Hagelin added that playing sound defense as Michigan heads into the second round of the playoffs this upcoming weekend at Yost Ice Arena is one of the key ingredients to formulating a deep run into the NCAA Tournament — the Wolverines are tied for third in the CCHA, allowing 2.31 goals per game.

And though Hagelin and the other six members of the current senior class have reached the Frozen Four just once, Michigan head coach Red Berenson has been there eight times during his 27 years on the bench.

Following the completion of the Wolverines’ sweep of Northern Michigan last weekend, the team sang ‘The Victors’ in the locker room and from the post-game festivities, one could see a very emotionally-charged Berenson who normally is as even keel as it gets.

“It’s hard to see how much Red cares sometimes because he keeps that straight face,” senior forward Matt Rust said last week. “But, I think from day one, he’s really expected a lot from this team. I think he might have a little special place for this team.”

Berenson turned 71 this past December and is approaching the last few seasons with the Wolverines, but his commitment to success hasn’t wavered — he signed a three-year contract extension last May, which will keep him at Michigan through the 2012-13 season.

“It’s like this team is his baby,” Hagelin said about Berenson’s love for Michigan. “He loves every player that comes through here. He just tries to develop us as much as possible, and obviously anytime you can win something, it’s a huge accomplishment for him and the team.

“He says when the team is playing well, it’s not because of the coach, that’s when all the players are clicking. That’s the goal we still have to reach.”

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