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September 28, 2013When Michigan hits the ice for the first time this season exactly one week from today, something will feel different. Actually, a lot will feel different. The 2013-14 campaign ushers in a new era of Big Ten hockey while for the Maize and Blue, they also hope it is the start of another NCAA streak.
"We're excited about the new season," said coach Red Berenson, now entering his 30th season behind the bench for Michigan. "We have 10 freshmen and whenever you have a good group of young kids you'll have a lot of enthusiasm that comes with that.
"Then we have a new conference to compete in, and that brings something new even for the seniors. Our schedule has a whole new look to it -- our fans will like it and our team will like it. Our challenge is to get ready for it. This is as tough a schedule as I can remember in recent years."
The Big Ten will consist of six teams - Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ohio State - with four games against each of the five opponents, two at home and two on the road.
With only 20 conference contests, the Maize and Blue will play an additional 14 non-conference games, welcoming Boston College (Oct. 10), Boston University (Oct. 25) and UMass-Lowell (Oct. 26) to Ann Arbor among a slate of non-league action that may be the best Michigan has ever played.
"I think we'll have one of the top five hardest schedules in the country," senior captain Mac Bennett said. "We're going to figure out where we're at really quickly, and that will be huge for us. If we can knock off some wins right away, we'll set ourselves up for success."
For fans that cannot make it to Yost this season, or can't make it often, 28 U-M games will be televised live, including eight on the Big Ten Network.
Double-digit freshmen or not, a competitive Big Ten or not, a daunting schedule or not, the Wolverines' goal remains the same.
"The standard that was set for me [my freshman year] was playing in the national championship game," said Bennett. "Our leadership group and the seniors really want to re-emphasize that was the standard and we want our freshmen to understand that."
That takes on added meaning this season after Michigan saw its 22-year NCAA Tournament streak snapped when U-M fell one game shy of an automatic berth after struggling through most of last season.
The good news is that many of the issues that plagued the Wolverines a year ago, should be remedied, starting with goaltender play.
Over the final 10 games, sophomore Steve Racine proved himself capable, going 8-1-1 with a 2.10 goals against average.
"Steve took a big step last year -- the biggest step in his career," Berenson said. "And whether or not that will continue or whether or not he'll hit some bumps in the road, you never know about a kid.
"I'm glad he finished the way he did. I think that will help him, and it will help our team.
"We never knew he was the guy that could play so well in the stretch run. It was a guessing game the way the year went, but he's going to get a chance to be our starting goalie this season."
On defense, Bennett will anchor the blue line but he'll need some help from four veterans that have not held down permanent spots in the lineup during their careers - senior Kevin Clare and juniors Brennan Serville, Mike Chiasson and Michael Szuma. U-M also welcomes four freshmen, with Michael Downing and Nolan DeJong the most prepared to play immediately.
"Everyone that has ben here and has played already, we need to take a step because we lost so many good players," Bennett said.
Michigan ranked seventh in the nation a year ago in scoring with 3.23 goals per game but 41 of their 129 goals came in the final 10 games, boosting an average that had sat at 2.93 goals per game during the Wolverines' 10-18-2 start.
What U-M discovered down the stretch was a dominant No. 1 line consisting of sophomore center Andrew Copp, junior left wing Alex Guptill and senior right wing Derek DeBlois. The three combined for 17 goals and 17 assists during that stretch and will lay claim to top-line honors again this season.
"I thought we came together real well late," said DeBlois, named an alternate captain in his final year. "Obviously there are a lot of great guys in that locker room in terms of talent and you can play with anybody. I would love to continue playing with Copp and Guptill, but wherever I'm needed, I will help the team.
"We have five lines worth of players. I don't think we've had that many forwards since I've been here. No one on this roster has a safe spot. You have to battle for every shift, every game, with the number of guys we have."
Michigan was picked to finish third in the Big Ten's first year, behind Wisconsin and Minnesota, but the Maize and Blue believe they can win the conference championship. Whatever happens, it should be a new and exciting season.
"We're pumped," Bennett said. "There is a really good energy in our locker room.
"The freshmen have really gelled nicely with the rest of the squad. We need them to play a huge role. And then in terms of being in the Big Ten, I think it's so cool because every game is a rivalry game. Every game will be played on a national stage. They will be televised with big crowds. It will be good for us and good for college hockey."