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January 10, 2014

Hockey takes on Wisconsin in Big Ten action

The Michigan hockey team has not played since Dec. 28, a span of 12 days, so the Wolverines have had a long time to stew over their 0-2 performance at the Great Lakes Invitational in preparation for this weekend's two-game series at Wisconsin.

"I've been a player and a coach for a while, and I've seen a lot of players and teams and they know when they haven't played well, and our team wants to play well, and they know they have to work hard," head coach Red Berenson said.

"Most teams are more coachable when they've lost a couple of games and they realize, 'We have to do better than that. The coaches have clear solutions in terms of things we have to improve on, so let's do it.'

"I think this team has done that at practice. We'll see if it shows up."

Michigan was rolling when it went into its holiday break, ranked third nationally after a 10-2-2 start. The Maize and Blue sit ninth today (the Badgers are No. 14) and have plenty of questions to answer after losing 3-2 and 3-0 to Western Michigan and Michigan State at the GLI Dec. 27-28.

U-M's coaching staff did not like its defensive-zone coverage and its special teams (0 for 8 on the power play, 6 for 8 on the penalty kill) and while those two aspects remain concerns, the key for the Wolverines is to regain a scoring touch.

"We have to be better without the puck and then hopefully we'll be better with the puck," Berenson said.

Almost everyone is slumping through a scoring drought right now, but the focus shifts more heavily to junior wing Phil Di Giuseppe and sophomore center Boo Nieves; Di Giuseppe has just four goals on the year and hasn't scored in six games but that stretch is pedestrian compared to the 14-game goalless streak for Nieves.

"Hopefully going home for a few days helped clear my mind," said Nieves, a 2012 second-round NHL Draft pick. "I haven't put up the points I want, but the second half really does seem to bring out the best in most guys and hopefully I can get something going."

Nieves has been a pass-first centerman, racking up 21 assists to just eight goals in his rookie year, but he needs to be both a playmaker and a goal scorer.

"Basically Red told me a few weeks ago I need to be more of a shoot-first kind of guy," he said. "I've always been a passer first, and my mentality has started to hurt us because I need to be a scorer for this team. We need to start getting pucks to the net. He's changing my mentality, which needs to be done.

"It's tough to make that change. You want to make the play and make that nice assist, but at this point we're struggling to score and I'm supposed to be a goal scorer so I have to be more aggressive, take the puck to the net, shoot and help my team by doing that."

Berenson said that Nieves had his best weekend of the year at the GLI, creating an abundance of scoring chances. He hit the post once and also had a five-hole attempt trickle away from the goal line.

Di Gisueppe is also a pass-first forward, racking up 34 assists compared to 20 goals in his first two seasons. However, he has tremendous shooting skills and has received the same message from Berenson that was delivered to Nieves.

"I like to set up plays, and Boo is the same way, but we both need to start shooting more and create chances for our team," he said. "It's habit for me to pass but we have to break out of it."

Tonight's game will start at 9:00 pm eastern time and can be seen on the Big Ten Network. Saturday's game will take place at 8:00 pm and can be seen on Fox Sports Wisconsin.

Michigan is returning to Big Ten action for the first time since a series with Ohio State Nov. 29-Dec. 2. The Wolverines are 2-0-0 in league play, but the Badgers (11-6-1, 2-2-0 in conference action) will be a formidable challenge.

"We need to take a step forward," Berenson said. "It will not be easy. Wisconsin is probably a better team than anyone at the GLI. At home they are 10-1-1 so we're going into a tough situation and we have to be ready for it.

"I think we look pretty good. We look a lot better than we did going into the GLI. We're more focused on the right things. We'll see. I think we'll play better than we played at the GLI. We're closer to playing the right way. I keep saying that and hopefully we will."

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