There was a noticeable bounce in the Wolverines' step at practice as they prepared for a quarterfinal playoff series at Western Michigan this weekend. Unbeaten in their last five (5-0-1), the Maize and Blue are finally enjoying themselves.
"Winning is a lot of fun and the past three weeks have been great," senior defenseman Lee Moffie said. "The energy at the rink and practices has been great. It's been a lot of hard work put into the last few months and that it's coming together for us when we have to have it is really nice. We're trying to appreciate this but also keeping our focus on what we need to do."
Michigan has to beat Western in the three-game series to advance to the CCHA semifinals and extend its season. Two losses this weekend and U-M's season is over with. Its consecutive NCAA Tournament streak will come to a halt at 22 seasons. But the Wolverines don't need to be reminded of that. They know what's at stake.
"We're playing for our lives right now," Moffie said.
U-M has been in a similar position only once during the past two-plus decades of NCAA success. The Wolverines had to win the conference playoffs in 2010 to qualify for the national tournament, and they did just that, sweeping Lake Superior State in an opening round at Yost Ice Arena, sweeping Michigan State in East Lansing in a quarterfinal and then beating Miami and Northern Michigan in the CCHA semifinals and finals.
A week ago, the Maize and Blue swept Northern Michigan at home, beating the Wildcats 3-2 and 6-2, and tonight they head to Kalamazoo for the series with the favored Broncos.
"You don't want to take a moment to look back," coach Red Berenson said. "You have to keep moving forward. These games are coming fast and furiously and there is no room for error, or for looking back or too far ahead. We have nothing to look forward to.
"It's not like we're a first-place team that is going to be in the NCAA Tournament because of our season, no matter what happens in the CCHA playoffs, which maybe happened a lot in the past. "
Though Western is a three-seed and Michigan was the No. 7 seed in the overall tournament, the Wolverines might be considered the favorite thanks to their recent play. They don't see it that way, though.
"They're the better team and they had the better season, and they beat us [three out of four games] head-to-head so we're going to have to see if we can upset them," Moffei said.
"This is exciting hockey to be a part of it. Every rush that comes down the ice, you feel it in the pit of your stomach because it could end up in the back of your net, and it's the same way going the other way when we're on offense.
"Every shift matters because we have to have these two wins."
The puck drops tonight at 6:35 p.m. and the game can be seen on Fox Sports Detroit. Saturday's and Sunday's (if necessary) games will start at 7:05 p.m. but will not be televised.
"We're not doing anything differently than in the fall but you can see that our team is coming together, playing better, we have a little more stability, a little more momentum, a little more confidence," Berenson said.