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March 13, 2013

Michigan confident it can win with defense

Michigan has won five of its last six games by scoring an average of 4.80 goals per victory, however, the Wolverines cannot expect to be that productive against the CCHA's best defensive team. The good news is they are capable of winning a low-scoring affair.

Four weeks ago, that wasn't the case. In going 10-18-2 in their first 30 games, the Maize and Blue yielded 3.63 goals against. Michigan was forced to score big numbers to win, but, perhaps feeling that pressure, U-M produced only 2.93 per contest.

Over the last six games (5-0-1), though, Michigan has surrendered just 12 total goals while freshman netminder Steve Racine has a .923 save percentage.

"Start with your goalie but then the whole team rallying around your goalie," said head coach Red Berenson, when asked what was responsible for the defensive turnaround.

"You saw a game on Saturday where we didn't have a lot of chances against us. Why? We were playing well with the puck. We were forechecking better. We were taking care of the puck. We weren't turning it over. We weren't giving up odd-man rushes. We weren't taking a lot of penalties, and we weren't making a lot of the mistakes we were earlier in the year and then blaming our goalies.

"I think we're getting better goalkeeping, better defense and better defensive effort from our forwards. And then our special teams are kicking in. We're not playing from behind as much. We're getting a chance to play with the lead and we're getting a little more confidence."

Western Michigan leads the CCHA and ranks third nationally in allowing just 1.92 goals against while sophomore backstop Frank Slubowski has a .922 save percentage on the year. This is a lockdown defensive team that gave up just six goals to the Wolverines in four regular-season games, going 3-1 against U-M.

"They're the stingiest team in our league and have the best special teams in our league," Berenson said. "It will take a heck of an effort on our team to get the best out of us. That's the challenge."

It is a challenge the Maize and Blue are eager to embrace.

"Our defensemen have done a good job. Steve has done a great job making timely saves. We're blocking shots and not giving up more than 25 shots a game, which is important," senior blue liner Lee Moffie said. "We think we can play in a couple low-scoring games, and win those games."

But it won't be as easy as snapping their fingers.

"Western is a better team than Northern," Moffie said. "They've had a great season and they're playing at home, and going to really test us. But we feel good coming out of our series with Northern because our forwards spent the game in their zone, forechecking, putting the pressure on them, and that's what really helped our game.

"If we can play the same way, really grind our opponent and create those chances, with our help from the defensemen, then we're going to have success."

Michigan's quarterfinal series at Western begins Friday, with the puck dropping at 6:35 p.m. The best-of-three series will continue Saturday and, if necessary, Sunday. A series victory and U-M will move on to the CCHA semifinals March 23 at Joe Louis Arena. A series loss and the season is over with.

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