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December 1, 2011The Michigan hockey team is in a slump. A decade-worst slump, winless in six games (0-5-1) for the first time since an eight-game stretch (0-4-4) in 1998-99. But while many fans are panicking, head coach Red Berenson is not ...
"I don't think we're far off," Berenson said. "We're not a hopeless team. I think we have players that will play better, lines that will play better, defensemen that will play better, and I think our goalie will play better.
"When we played really well last year, [senior goaltender] Shawn Hunwick was our catalyst. He made up for all of our mistakes, and then we got to the point where he didn't have to play as well because we had everyone playing hard and playing well, and that's your goal.
"We're going through a tough time and we have to get out of it. We have to believe in ourselves, No. 1, and I think we do. But there are points where things are going against us and we have to get by that. If we give up the first goal against, we have to say, 'Don't worry about it, we'll get it back.'"
Michigan finished the month of October 6-1-1, averaging 4.88 goals per contest while allowing just 1.88 per game. During its November slide - the Wolverines were 1-6-1 overall - U-M scored just 2.63 goals per game and surrendered 3.50 per night. Most recently, the Maize and Blue have given up 16 goals in their past three losses.
"I need to be better, the defense needs to be better, we all need to step up," Hunwick said.
"You hope we can all start playing better, but hopefully I can step up and make some saves. Every time you make a mistake you don't want to see it end up in the back of the net. So if I could cover up some mistakes I think it will go a long way towards building up the confidence of our team."
An alternate captain, and a senior leader, Hunwick is, not surprisingly, accepting much of the blame for Michigan's defensive struggles, but Berenson refuses to point the finger at one player, knowing the Wolverines are losing as a team.
"He's been put in tough situations," Berenson said. "We're asking him to bail us out too often. Everything that could go wrong is going wrong, and yet he's still making some good saves.
"He's a barometer of our team. We're only good if our goals against are down. We gave up 10 goals in two games [over Thanksgiving weekend] ... how can you feel good about that? At home.
"That's a team issue, and it starts with goalie, but it's defense, it's forwards. If everybody doesn't do their job without the puck, then we have no chance."
Some theories bandied about have argued that Michigan's over-reliance on freshmen - six skaters see the ice on a nightly basis - has caught up to the Maize and Blue, and there may be some truth to it. U-M's rookies, who have tallied six of the past 11 goals, are not the problem, but the veteran juniors and seniors that have not stepped up their games are.
"At this point, talk is pretty cheap," senior captain Luke Glendening said. "We're on a six-game skid, and we need to see results instead of hearing people talk about what they're going to do to help us snap out of it.
"I may not be putting in goals, but my work ethic has to be there every day in practice. My attitude has to be good. If I have to jumpstart our team with a big hit ... or maybe I need to start scoring. I have to figure that out, but there are other guys on this team as well, seniors and juniors, and we have to start doing our part to help this team."
This weekend's trip to Alaska - the Wolverines left Wednesday morning - could be the perfect tonic for Michigan's struggles. Hunwick admitted he's hearing from plenty of friends and classmates wondering why U-M isn't winning, and it will be beneficial to get away from all that.
"In theory, you're in Alaska and there shouldn't be very many distractions," he said. "You should just be able to focus on hockey. There is no school for five days. It's a long trip, and hopefully the boys can come together and have a little fun."
With Michigan sitting in seventh place in the CCHA standings, with a mere 12 points, and a weekend series against fellow middling rival Michigan State on the horizon Dec. 9-10, the Wolverines need to get going soon.
"We've been in this situation before, and sometimes a good road weekend will get you back in sync," Berenson said. "We want to come home with a much better result than we've had in these games. We've got to change the way we're playing and feeling, and hopefully build some confidence."
"There is going to be a time, a decision-making time to bring back Jon Merrill, and that's not right now," he said.
Arguably Michigan's top defenseman, and at the very least its top offensive defender, Merrill has sat out all 16 of U-M's games this season for a violation of team rules. Sources have told TheWolverine.com to expect Merrill to return to the lineup in January.
At 7-7-2 (3-5-2 in the CCHA), and ranked 20th in the Pairwise Rankings (outside the 16-team NCAA field) the Maize and Blue have to turn their season around, though there is still time.
"We know we have to pick up wins," Hunwick said. "But it's about playing good hockey. If we're playing good hockey and still losing, you can't worry about it. But right now we're not playing good hockey and we're losing games."
"He reminds me of Jack Johnson because he has really good offensive instincts," assistant coach Billy Powers said. "The one thing about Mike Komisarek was he was a defensive defenseman, and he was great at it, but Jacob is a guy that can quarterback a power play. He can be a shooter on a power play. He will be joining the rush 5-on-5, and if he sees an opportunity in the neutral zone to catch someone with their head down, he steps up and hits you to hurt you.
"He has a meanness and nastiness to him, but he has a real high-end skill package to go with it. And the last player we had with that combination of forward-type offensive skills and then strength and power as a big-time physical defenseman was Jack."