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February 25, 2014

News and Views: Mac Bennett out this weekend

The Michigan hockey team will play this weekend's games against Ohio State without senior captain Mac Bennett after the defenseman suffered an upper-body injury Feb. 22 against Penn State.

News: Bennett was injured in the first period of the 5-2 win and did not return. This season, the blue liner has accumulated two goals and 12 assists and is a defenseman-best plus-10. He is without question the Wolverines top defender.

Head coach Red Berenson: "It's not as bad as we first thought but he's still week-to-week. We'll see how he is next week. I'm suspecting it will be another weekend and maybe another one. It's not a season-ending injury, which we were first afraid of.

"We'll revisit his status next Monday."

Views: Bennett's injury comes at a time when Michigan finally thought it would have a full roster following the return of rookie blue liner Kevin Lohan from a 19-game injury absence. It also comes at the worst possible time, as this team plays defense like it's an optional part of the game, surrendering 33.3 shots per contest and 2.93 goals per game.

Goalie play has been erratic lately, but the biggest culprit of U-M's spiking GAA - up from just 2.68 three weeks ago after the Maize and Blue surrendered 23 goals in the past six games (3.83 average) - is poor play by the Michigan defense deep in their own territory and poor backchecking from the Wolverines' forwards.

In last Friday's stunning 5-4 overtime loss to Penn State, four of the Nittany Lions' five goals came after careless Michigan turnovers, including a pair of uncharacteristic mistakes from Bennett. Yet somehow, in his absence, the Maize and Blue are supposed to get better as they gear up for their final six regular-season games.

"That's the challenge," Berenson said. "Our defense is what it is and they're as ready as they've ever been to pick up the slack in what we lose without Mac.

"To lose Mac, we'll have to suck it up in the next few weeks. We have huge games and we have to play our best without him. That's the way it is. We can't cry over injuries. It would be nice to be healthy but we're not.

"When you do lose someone there is a chance someone else will step up. We may not even know who that is, they may not, but you get in a game and you say, 'Boy this guy is taking it another level or taking more responsibility.' Hopefully we'll see that on defense."

News: Junior left winger Alex Guptill was benched last Saturday after a poor effort defensively in the Wolverines' loss to Penn State. Guptill is third on the team in points with 19, including what appeared to be the game-winning goal in the 5-4 defeat - he gave U-M a 4-3 lead with 2:02 remaining in the contest - but he also had a turnover at the blue line that led to PSU's third marker.

Berenson: "He has to be dialed in to play like we need him to play. Not to just go out and hope he gets the odd scoring chance. He has to play both ends of the rink.

"You can't keep doing the same thing and expect to get better results. I have to be upfront. I can't in all fairness coach a player and let him off the hook if he's not doing the right thing. It's not fair to him, it's not fair to our team or our program no matter who he is, whether he's our best player or not."

Views: For a player with 19 points, Guptill is only plus-1 because he's such a liability defensively. Perhaps the most maddening part is the talent is there to be a strong two-way player, however, the effort is severely lacking.

For instance, after Guptill's turnover on the power play, Lion Dylan Richard didn't have much momentum and Guptill probably could have caught up to him to prevent the breakaway, but the junior forward dogged it down the ice and watched Richard tied the game.

That type of performance occurs far too often with the 6-3, 183-pounder. Guptill has tremendous ability - he has led U-M in scoring each of the past two seasons - but he has not developed a commitment to playing a three-zone game. Berenson is hopeful benching him a night after he scored a goal will be the final push he needs.

News: After a 10-2-1 start in which Michigan was ranked third nationally, the Wolverines are 5-8-2 since and are now ranked 13th in the two major polls.

Berenson: "I was surprised we did as well as quick as we did with such a young team, and with the fact that [sophomore goalie] Steve Racine got hurt. And then Lohan got hurt. But I thought our team held up well in the first half. In the second half we got off to a tough start with four losses, and we only played four games in 5.5 weeks. And now we've been up and down. We have to get straightened out and on the right track.

"We've said this all along, there is a lot of parity in college hockey. The games we won in the first half were all one-goal games. Outside of the odd gam we won by two or three … look at the Michigan Tech series, 2-1, 3-2, the close games in New Hampshire, overtime wins against Ohio State. One-goal games. There is parity.

"Everyone is getting better and we may not have gotten better as a team. A lot of our individuals have continued to improve but has our whole team gotten better? I don't think so."

Views: Michigan won seven of its first 10 games by a single goal so maybe the early success inflated expectations some and didn't truly reflect what this team was capable over the long run.

As Berenson noted, the Wolverines were winning not by outscoring their foes - they scored more than three goals in only five of those 13 contests - but with defense, limiting opponents to 2.23 goals per contest. Since then, though, the defense has faltered and the goalies have been mortal.

"We need to be better defensively, and I'm not worried about the offensive part, but I'm always concerned about defense," Berenson said. "We gave up seven goals this weekend to Penn State. Even Saturday was a 4-0 lead and we gave up two bad goals. Goals that are stoppable, goals that are preventable.

"We have to get our goals against down. That's why we were winning in the first half. We can't give up 3.5 goals a game and expect to win."

Michigan is running out of time to right its ship. The Wolverines only have seven guaranteed contests remaining (six regular-season and one Big Ten Tournament) and are on the brink of falling out of the NCAA Tournament.

"The fact is that we need to play better and find a way to generate more wins on a consistent basis," Berenson said. "We have to play a lot better than we have in recent games. It's that simple. If we do well, then we'll have a chance of having a good Big Ten Tournament and then being an option in the NCAA. If we don't win, then we don't make the tournament and won't deserve it.

"We have to start playing better, starting this Friday."


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