There's been good news and bad news for the Michigan hockey team this week in preparation for a weekend series vs. Penn State. The Wolverines lost two defensemen to one-game suspensions but rookie blue liner Kevin Lohan will return from a four-month injury.
News: The six-man defensive rotation will look vastly different Friday than it did a week ago after both junior Andrew Sinelli and freshman Michael Downing picked up single-game suspensions for the contact-to-the-head hits in a 4-1 loss to Minnesota Feb. 15. In their stead, junior Mike Chiasson and Lohan will play.
Lohan has not seen the ice since suffering a knee injury against Michigan Tech Nov. 2, missing the last 19 games.
Red Berenson: "It will good to get him back in the lineup. Lohan will go in and Chiasson will go in. Chiasson has played fine when he's filled in. Lohan just has to get caught up to speed.
"It will be an opportunity for Chiasson and it will be good to get some size in our lineup too with Lohan."
Views: There was debate at Yost Ice Arena Tuesday whether the hits - Sinelli cross-checked a Gopher in the face after the whistle and Downing leveled an opposing forward with an elbow - warranted their punishments, and while arguments could be made for and against the suspensions, the NCAA is trying to weed out dangerous hits to the head so there is no sense complaining about it.
If there is a silver lining in all of this, Downing probably could have used a game off. The freshman has struggled recently, making poor decisions with the puck, taking bad angles and unnecessary risks with his desire to lay out opponents.
Sinelli, on the other hand, has played well since making the transition from forward after Lohan's injury, and he may find himself the odd-man out Saturday night.
"If Lohan gets back on a regular basis then we'll see where Sinelli fills in but it's good to have a player like that that can fill in up front, fill in on defense," Berenson said.
Michigan needs a fresh start on the blue line. The defensive play has been especially poor in recent weeks, and perhaps Lohan's return will be the spark needed to reinvigorate this group.
News: Junior forward Alex Guptil is expected back in the lineup after sitting out two games with a shoulder injury. Guptill is one of many forwards underperforming offensively, as the Wolverines slid to 32nd nationally in goals for with 2.81 after scoring only four markers in two games against the Golden Gophers.
Berenson: "You have to play hard and do what you're good at, and make sure you're not hurting the team defensively. The only reason we're in any kind of position with a winning record is because of our defensive game. Our goalies, our penalty killing, and that's the only reason we're surviving. Sometimes the puck isn't going in and you have to play in 2-1 games.
"We're at the point now where we're saying, 'We can't give someone 4-5 games to get some confidence.' Right now you better do everything you can to help this team. And it might not be scoring goals, but when you quit worrying about scoring goals you usually score goals.
"If you're playing hard … like [junior] Zach Hyman is a good example. He had one goal in the first half of the year but he played so hard every night for our team and was so solid defensively that he stayed in the lineup and then guess what happened? Now he's our second-leading scorer in our last 10 games. Good for him. It took the perseverance and work ethic to stay with it."
Views: Berenson has been harping on this all year, emphasizing to his team to play stronger without the puck in the anticipation that good things will happen on the offensive end, but that's not the case for players like junior Phil Di Giuseppe and sophomore Boo Nieves. Both are playing tough in their own zone but have combined for just six markers.
At some point, someone like Nieves has to break out of his 24-game goal-scoring slump. If he could just get that one goal he could open the dam down the stretch and produce consistently, but he's fighting his confidence, and he's not alone.
Many often underestimate the role of confidence in athletes playing at the highest level, but 18-22 year olds can go through periods where they have tons of it (Hyman and rookie J.T. Compher are perfect examples) and then none of it (Nieves).
Without confidence, great players are average, and unfortunately, there are too many great talents performing at average levels for the Wolverines presently.
News: Michigan has fallen to 12 points back of Minnesota with eight games to go. If U-M went 8-0 it would tie the Golden Gophers for the Big Ten title but that might be an unrealistic goal. In fact, the Maize and Blue are not even talking about that.
Berenson: "We know we have eight games left, we have six home games, and they're all Big ten games, and all important. We have to play well in every one of them. Best-case scenario, mathematically, you find a way into the top two [and first-round byes], but we have to play really well and that starts with Friday night.
"Last week was a chance to really push Minnesota for first place, or at least put ourselves in a better position and we didn't do that. We're not going to be talking about first place. We're talking about playing hard and playing better n the stretch run."
Views: There is a good reason to drop the Big Ten title talk - beyond the fact that it's a pipe dream, U-M has to focus on one game at a time and not get lost in the big picture. That starts with a victory Friday night against Penn State, and then another one Saturday.
Michigan can't make up its deficit in one night or even one weekend, but it can overtake the Badgers for second if it continues to focus on playing its best hockey.