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December 14, 2012

Series with Western Michigan are must-win games

Every game on Michigan's hockey schedule is must-win going forward, but this weekend's two-game series against Western Michigan is critically important if the Wolverines have any chance of competing for an NCAA Tournament bid.

Presently, U-M ranks 38th in the RPI. That's a long way from the mid-teens where the Wolverines will have to be to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA postseason. In a study by Pairwise aficionado Matt Latham, the final at-large bid over the past 10 years went to programs that averaged a .575 winning percentage, likely meaning for Michigan to even enter the conversation, it needs to finish with a similar success rate.

At the moment, the Maize and Blue boast a .400 wining percentage (5-8-2), and with 21 guaranteed contests remaining in the season, U-M needs to win 16 to even have a chance, and while U-M has won at a .750 (actually .762) clip before, the challenge is great because of the schedule - Michigan will play 11 of its next 19, pre-playoffs, away from Yost Ice Arena. Michigan is 0-4-2 away from home this year.

"If you look at the standings and the RPI, we have to start winning some games if we want to be considered to make the tournament or we'll have to win our way through the CCHA and you don't want to put yourself in that situation," junior forward Derek DeBlois said.

A year ago, in bouncing back from an 8-8-2 start, Michigan closed the first half of the season with a win and tie against Michigan State before breaking for the holidays. Those games seemed to spark the Maize and Blue, who would go on to win the Great Lakes Invitational and then go 10-3-1 in January and February.

"These are huge games in our season," said DeBlois. "Western is one of the best teams in the country [No. 7 in the Pairwise] and we have to have these wins. We're right at the halfway mark and we're either going to have positive or negative momentum going into the second half of the season."

With some positive momentum, Michigan could again win the GLI and put together a strong second half, at least giving the Maize and Blue a chance. With two losses, though, U-M's dim NCAA hopes all but vanish, barring a CCHA Tournament championship run.

"We're trying to focus on our team and little things we can do better, little things we've been working on in practice, and take out some of the good things from the last game we played - how we skated, competed, worked and so on," said coach Red Berenson, keeping his team from looking at the big picture. "I'm of the feeling that we're due for our best game and hopefully we'll get it this weekend before we go into the Christmas break."

Michigan last played Dec. 1, when it tied Ferris State 3-3 after blowing a 3-1 lead. U-M would earn an extra point with a shootout win, however. Since then, the Wolverines have been the source of numerous articles asking: What's wrong? But if they are feeling the pressure, they're not letting on.

"We're focused on ourselves," DeBlois said. "We know we have the right group, the talent. We have goal scorers, defensemen, guys that can stop the puck. We have everything we need to be successful but we have to work harder than we have all year to start winning.

"We're looking forward to the weekend because practices have been intense and we can't wait to show we've turned a corner."

DeBlois is one of those players that really has to turn it on. He's played well at times according to Berenson but not consistently enough. The coaches pegged him as a breakout player offensively and he got off to a good start with a goal and two assists in U-M's first three games. But in the past 12, he has just two points.

"He's not getting the results that I think he should get or he thinks he should get," Berenson said. "We have a lot of guys that could tap in a goal that would change our team direction. And then on the flip side we can't forget about the goals against. That puts even more pressure on you when you're not scoring ... we have too many minus players in the lineup."

That has to change. Before it's too late.

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