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February 8, 2013

Hockey looks to keep momentum rolling at Notre Dame

Perhaps lost in all the excitement of Signing Day and the basketball team's success, there actually is a hockey game tonight, and the Wolverines are fresh off a two-game winning streak that represents their first series sweep all year.

The Maize and Blue can make up even more ground in the race to host a first-round playoff series (trailing fifth-place Ohio State by 10 points with two games in hand and only six left to play, U-M realistically has no chance at a first-round bye) when they head to South Bend this weekend to take on Notre Dame.

The mood at Yost Ice Arena this week was jovial, the enthusiasm of a Michigan State sweep making even the conditioning feel good. But that euphoria won't last if the Wolverines don't take care of business this evening (the puck drops at 7:35 p.m. and can be seen on CBS Sports Network).

Once the CCHA's top team, and a favorite to contend for the national title, Notre Dame is in a free fall, going 2-7-1 in its last 10 games, though the Fighting Irish did salvage last weekend a bit by earning a shootout victory over Ohio State Feb. 2. Still, this is a team with a wounded confidence going up against a team with some swagger.

Can the Maize and Blue sustain that confidence? The good news is that Michigan didn't fold against the Spartans after allowing leads to disappear, pressing forward offensively and scoring quickly after an MSU goal to re-establish two-goal advantages. But how much of that success was Michigan related and how much was the fact that State is just flat-out awful? That's the question everyone is still asking today.

The good news is U-M's defense played more fundamentally sound and gets junior Mac Bennett back this week. Classmate Jon Merrill seems to be coming into his own finally after the rust of a 19-game absence has worn off the past few games, while freshman netminder Jared Rutledge gave the Wolverines just enough against MSU to earn a pair of victories. In other words, there are some elements defensively the Maize and Blue can finally build around.

Offensively, freshman center Boo Nieves and sophomore left wing Phil Di Giuseppe have developed outstanding chemistry - the two combined for three goals and seven assists last week - while junior Derek DeBlois experienced the first three-goal weekend of his career.

If senior captain A.J. Treais could break out of his slump - he has just one goal in his past 12 games - the Wolverines might just be able to get two lines going, giving Michigan something offensively to build on.

Maybe there's hope for this team yet. Not in terms of winning eight in a row to close out the year, but just to get some momentum going heading into the postseason. But the Maize and Blue still have a lot to prove. Every time they've taken one step forward, they've taken two back.

Tied with Bowling Green, which has two games in hand, for that coveted final home-ice spot, U-M needs as many points as it can get this weekend. To return home swept would be catastrophic. Michigan needs at least one win, and could take a gigantic leap forward with another sweep.


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