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December 7, 2012

Wolverines are down, but not out

For the first time since the season began Oct. 11, the Michigan hockey team has a weekend off. They could use it to refocus and regroup following a disastrous 5-8-2 start. However, the Wolverines promise they're not lacking for confidence. Not yet, anyway.

Michigan has won just once in its last seven games, beating lowly Bowling Green 3-1 Nov. 21. Since then, the Maize and Blue have dropped a 5-1 decision to Cornell in Madison Square Garden Nov. 24, in which coach Red Berenson questioned his team's effort and passion, and a 5-0 loss at Ferris State last week (Nov. 30) that everyone associated with the program hopes represents rock bottom.

In the second game of the FSU series, U-M settled for a 3-3 tie at the end of regulation and overtime, but then earned an extra point with a shootout victory, giving the Wolverines some confidence heading into this weekend sabbatical.

"Believe it or not I think we're in a pretty good place," junior alternate captain Mac Bennett said. "Saturday's game they scored that goal on the first shift but we answered back with three goals, like rapid fire, so that was really good to see. Unfortunately we ended up giving them two more goals, but we won in a shootout.

"I think we're in a good place. Everyone is upbeat still."

"When they got that first goal, there wasn't any doubt in our minds we'd be OK, where in past games, it would have been like 'Oh crap,'" senior alternate captain Kevin Lynch added. "We put the pedal to the metal and got the next goal. We didn't get down and give up, and that was a big change for us. We knew it would turn in our favor eventually, and we made it happen."

In the shootout win, Berenson dramatically changed his lines, putting Lynch, senior center A.J. Treais and senior left wing Lindsay Sparks together for the first time this season. The line represented the first all-senior line of the year, and was meant to inspire and motivate.

"Putting me, A.J. and Sparks together can give us a boost, knowing we have that senior leadership," said Lynch, who had an assist while Treais and Sparks both scored.

"Maybe it does put pressure on our shoulders to produce but we like being in that role and having that pressure because I think it makes us play better."

The Maize and Blue also left sophomore forward Alex Guptill home during the trip to Big Rapids, catching many by surprise; Guptill led the team in scoring a year ago and ranks second on the team with four goals this season.

"I think the message there is you have to bring your hard hat to work every day because no one's job is safe," Bennett said. "With Guptill not making the trip, that was a wake-up call not only for him but for the rest of the guys on the team that we have to come to work."

Michigan will host Western Michigan next weekend, Dec. 14-15, and the games are critical. On Thursday, esteemed blogger Chris Dilks talked about U-M's struggles (as did we earlier this week) and noted that the Wolverines' RPI rank (36th) is so awful right now that it would take a miracle for Michigan to qualify for the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team. That means U-M will likely have to win the CCHA tourney to garner an automatic berth.

To their credit, the Maize and Blue aren't ready to throw in the towel.

"Michigan is never out of it," Bennett said. "We've been able to come back time and time again.

"The year before I came [2010], the season was on the line when Shawn Hunwick stepped in and he rose to the challenge. Last year we lost a lot of games in November but we were a No. 1 seed by the end of the year.

"You can dig yourself a pretty big hole and still get out of it."

Doing his best Brady Hoke impersonation, Lynch agreed.

"This is Michigan, so your confidence never gets too low," he said. "We always have that swagger. No matter what our record is, we're Michigan and we have a standard and it makes it work harder.

"I don't think our confidence has been shot by a couple games. It's a long season, and teams in the past have started poorly but finished strong, and we're going to be the same."



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