Perhaps the biggest addition Jon Merrill has provided since returning from an indefinite suspension Jan. 6 is that Michigan now boasts two defensive pairings as good as there is in the CCHA and maybe even college hockey ...
Few teams in the CCHA can match the Wolverines' top four of senior Greg Pateryn and sophomore linemate Mac Bennett, and junior Lee Moffie with linemate Merrill. Most teams have a solid No. 1 pairing only to see a drop off with its No. 2 and a significant fall with its No. 3. But not the Maize and Blue.
"Personally, I've always said the team with the best defense wins," coach Red Berenson said. "The team with the best defense doesn't turn the puck over as much, doesn't give up many quality chances, they know how to check the other team and break out rushes, and so on. It's a big part of the team."
It also allows for Berenson to mix and match his top two defensive pairings with an opponent's No. 1 and No. 2 forward lines without worrying that one unit will be overwhelmed.
"When you've only got one great defensive pairing, you almost have to be careful with how you use them because you want to make sure you match them up with the other team's best line all the time," Moffie said. "But when you have two, you can play those guys as many shifts as you want and not worry about getting caught with them on the bench after a long shift.
"Our coaches have a lot of confidence in our top four, and our top six overall, but we need to play better. We had a bad weekend against Michigan State. Our puck touches were sloppy. We had a lot of turnovers in our own zone and [Shawn] Hunwick had to bail us out more than he should have needed to. So we have to play better."
Berenson wasn't pleased with his defensemen in the Wolverines' series split with rival MSU. Bennett had a critical turnover late in the third period that resulted in a point-blank goalmouth opportunity for Michigan State. But he wasn't alone. A reliable top four is only as strong as it plays every night, and U-M can't play as poorly as it did against the Spartans and expect to win its final four games.
"It's reassuring to know we did not play our best hockey this weekend, all the way down the lineup, and we were still able to be in two close games and pull out a win," Moffie said. "But we can't get away with that every weekend. We have a big game Friday against Northern, and that's where it starts."
After splitting with Michigan State, Michigan dropped to six points back of first-place Ferris State (47 points to 41), with little chance to overcome the Bulldogs, 9-0-3 in their last 12 after a weekend sweep at Notre Dame, in the final two weekends. But the Maize and Blue will not concede, knowing that if they can win their final four, beginning with this weekend's final home series against Northern Michigan, they will have a chance.
Michigan and Michigan State played in front of a sellout crowd of 20,066 at Joe Louis Arena Feb. 11. That marked the first sellout at JLA with U-M participating since Feb. 23, 2008, also against MSU. The Wolverines have played 19 games in Detroit since then.
"To be in front of that many fans at the Joe, that would rank second in my college experience only to The Big Chill," Bennett said.
Michigan and MSU re-upped with Joe Louis to continue playing a neutral-site game there every season through 2015. And when the announcement was made, there was some (myself included) questioning whether it was smart to sacrifice a home game at Yost Ice Arena every other year. But the atmosphere at Joe Louis seemingly quieted such criticism.
"It has been a sellout before but not on a regular basis, for one reason or another," Berenson said. "Michigan State wasn't even selling their own building out, let alone Joe Louis. I think they're making a comeback now, and their crowd showed up, and good for them. It makes the environment special for everyone.
"We have some confidence down there. We've won two overtime games down there this year, so when we play a big game in there with a big crowd ... I feel good that our Michigan contingent of fans comes down and makes us feel like it's our home rink."
Junior forward A.J. Treais is enjoying the longest point streak of his career - five games - contributing six goals and an assist during that span, including two-goal nights in victories over Miami Feb. 3 and Michigan State Feb. 11.
The 5-8, 163-pound Treais may be the most talented offensive player on U-M, but has yet to produce at a consistently high level. In 112 games prior to his scoring streak, he scored 24 goals and chipped in 26 assists or one point every 2.2 games.
"We need A.J. to play well," Berenson said. "It's time. 'Let's get going. You can't play the way you were when you were a freshman or a sophomore.'
"We said it at the beginning of the year, the junior class has to take a big step if we're going to be a good team. Chris Brown is playing better, strong, more productive than last year. Kevin Lynch started off slow, but now Kevin Lynch is becoming a factor on this team. Lee Moffie is becoming a factor, and now A.J.
"He needs to be fiery. He needs to be abrasive. He needs to be hungry. He needs to be into it, because if he is, he's a different player.
"Right now he's in a good place but we have to keep moving ahead. Last week we talked about how good our penalty killing was, and I was trying to hedge a little bit. We weren't that good. Our goalie was good. We tipped some shots or they hit the post. Well, now you're not going to bring that up because it wasn't very good against Michigan State.
"I don't want to bring A.J. up because the season is not over. The minute you start admiring your past ... I'd really not admire anything right now."