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November 6, 2012Michigan hasn't met rival Michigan State this early in the season since 2006-07, but this weekend's meeting could serve as a rallying point for a team searching for its identity following a 3-3-1 start.
The Wolverines were the preseason third-ranked team in the country and while they have not always started strong, the Maize and Blue were expected to perform better than their .500 record thus far.
Michigan points to injuries and constant lineup changes to partly explain its struggles; U-M hasn't had standout junior defenseman Jon Merrill all year while junior defenseman Kevin Clare missed a game and sophomore blue liner Brennan Serville has missed two due to injury.
"We haven't had our whole defense," said head coach Red Berenson. "With Jon Merrill out, that's a big piece of the puzzle. You saw us up north, [freshman] Jacob Trouba got suspended and we had to play [senior forward] Jeff Rohrkemper on defense. Serville didn't make the trip but he should be back this week.
"We're thin. We have to get everybody healthy No. 1, and then start gelling like we thought we would."
Merrill will make "a big difference" when he returns after cracking a vertebrae Oct. 9. He has missed all seven games but isn't due to return until December at the earliest. But for a team that expected to rely on its defense as its greatest strength while figuring out its goaltending situation and its offense, the absence of Merrill and the injury situation has been difficult to adapt to.
"As a team, we're still trying to find ourselves," said junior defenseman Mac Bennett. "It's early in the season still. With every other team that I've been on, I don't think we've gotten clicking until December at least.
"It's early, we've got a young squad and we're still trying to find out who we are.
"We have to take pride in D-zone coverage. I said it on Saturday and we watched video today, it's just little things - forwards picking up their points, or defensemen having better sticks in the D-zone. It's all little things, and if we can build off D-zone our offensive firepower will come."
Perhaps the arrival of Michigan State to Yost on Friday, and the subsequent trip to East Lansing on Saturday, will do wonders for this team, making them forge that identity and right what has plagued the Maize and Blue in seven games - mainly a defense that ranks 50th nationally allowing 3.43 goals per contest.
"This could be the weekend we rally around and try to get something going because it feels really good to beat State," Bennett said.
"He was productive last year, scored some big goals and made some big plays," Berenson said. "He's a rushing defenseman and skates really well, carries the puck really well.
"The way the game is played now, if you're playing hard in the other team's zone sooner or later the puck comes back to the point and you have to get it through, and Mac is finding a way to get his shots through, and if they get through they have a shot to go in."
"That's too bad [the Classic was called]," Berenson said. "It's more than too bad. Hopefully it'll happen but it doesn't look like it'll happen this year. For The Big House and the whole city of Detroit for the hockey experience that they would have had in Comerica, that's too bad."
The NHL has announced Detroit and Toronto will play in the next Winter Classic, which will now be pushed back to Jan. 1, 2014.
"We'll review it all this week and decide what we're doing," Berenson said.