It's quite possibly do-or-die time for the Michigan hockey team as it prepares to welcome No. 1 Minnesota for its final series of the regular season, and the good news is that U-M expects to have senior defenseman Mac Bennett back in the lineup.
News: Still icing a sore left shoulder, Bennett is on track to return for the two-game series, including Senior Night March 15.
Head coach Red Berenson: "We think he'll play. It means we have our best defenseman back and that will boost everyone, stabilize our defensemen. It's good for everyone, from our top pair down to our third pair. He gives our team leadership, confidence, stability and he leads by example as well.
"Since he's gone out, [junior] Andrew Sinelli has surfaced and [rookie] Kevin Lohan has surfaced. Our defense has tried to pick up the slack since he's gone. [Freshman] Michael Downing has played well, but we're going to be a better defense with Mac Bennett playing."
Views: Bennett has missed the last four games and most of a fifth after going down early in the first period against Penn State Feb. 22. At first, the coaches thought the injury might be of a season-ending variety, but there was no need for surgery or significant rest. Bennett, however, is not as convinced as Berenson that he will be back this weekend.
"I'm taking it day by day and see how I feel," he said. "If the weekend rolls around and I'm ready to go, I'm ready to go."
To beat the nation's top team, Michigan needs its best players, and until his injury, Bennett was, inarguably, U-M's most consistent defensemen and one of its three elite players night after night.
In his absence, senior Kevin Clare is playing his finest hockey, Sinelli has continued to emerge after converting from forward earlier this year, and rookie Kevin Lohan, who returned from a 19-game injury Feb. 21, has played well. However, the blue line remains largely inconsistent, with bad shifts, bad periods and bad games costing the Maize and Blue in two losses and a tie over the last six games.
With Bennett back, the hope is that he will elevate the play of the entire defensive corps and team. His presence alone bumps a so-so sixth defender from the lineup, while his performance will make his partner better, and his leadership should be good for the entire team.
News: After starting three straight games, sophomore goalie Steve Racine is not guaranteed to start against Minnesota despite the fact that he has played the Gophers twice this year.
Berenson: "That might have mattered if we had beaten them twice, but I think the competition wide open. We'll go through the week like we do every other week."
Views: Racine went into last weekend's Michigan State series 2-0 in his previous two starts, and the No. 1 job, which has jumped back and forth between him and rookie Zach Nagelvoort, was his to lose.
In a 7-1 opening-night win in which he had 21 saves, Racine took one step closer to cementing his role, but then a 4-3 loss to MSU in East Lansing (and two bad third-period goals) put his lock on the job back in doubt.
At this point, who knows what the coaches will do, and no one should envy their choice as both Racine and Nagelvoort have consistently allowed the bad goals that didn't plague the Wolverines in the first half of the season but are quickly becoming one of U-M's greatest vulnerabilities.
That doesn't let the rest of the team off the hook, as defensive turnovers remain an issue, backchecking from the forwards is spotty and the offense goes into terrible lulls at the most inopportune times, but goalie play has been wildly inconsistent lately, and for Michigan to have any shot against Minnesota, Racine and/or Nagelvoort has to be on his/their 'A' game this weekend.
News: Michigan led 3-1 after one period of play against the Spartans before giving up three unanswered goals in a 4-3 loss that spoiled the potential for a sweep.
Berenson: "I think we're a little bit like the Red Wings. We have a little bit of success and if we just relax one iota … I'll read you the quote from [Detroit coach] Mike Babcock. It could have been coming out of my mouth. They had scored seven goals the game before and then lost to the Rangers [3-0].
"'New York played hard and were organized but we weren't competitive enough. We turned over the puck, didn't compete physically in the offensive zone. Never made it hard on the goalie. Disappointed with our group today.
"'This isn't about standings. It's about doing things right and if you stay in the process, you execute, and if you focus on forechecking and defensive zone the score will look after itself. We weren't competitive enough. As a group we weren't good enough. As a coach, you have to look at yourself. This was unacceptable.'"
Views: Michigan and Detroit are eerily similar this season - teams with very talented players that are underachieving and are not playing cohesively. Berenson also feels that when his team seizes momentum it has shown an immaturity, having no idea how to hang out to it.
"I like the way we started the game at Michigan State and then we had a little bit of success and we let off," he said. "You know they're going to push back. We had the edge and we have to keep going.
"Babcock's final comment is, 'Every time you think you have it going, you don't. Just stayed scared and life is good.' And that's how I feel. We have to stay on edge and play on edge. And then when the weekend is over, we can see where we are. That's how we have to play."
A recent trend has arisen in which the Wolverines, as Berenson noted, become a little too content with themselves. They beat Penn State 7-3 in State College Feb. 7, and then were shut out 4-0 the next night. They played well in a 5-3 loss at Minnesota Feb. 14, and then weren't even competitive in a 4-1 loss the next night.
They led Penn State 3-1 after one period of play Feb. 21 and then were outscored 4-1 in a 5-4 overtime loss. They beat MSU 7-1 March 7, and led 3-1 the next night only to lose.
Perhaps Michigan's early success - U-M was 10-2-1 - inflated the young team's sense of self, giving them the false confidence that winning was contagious and they would just find a way. But it doesn't work like that. Winning takes grit and a commitment to hard work for 60 minutes.
This weekend, that mantra is even more critical. If U-M lets off the gas against the Golden Gophers, it will find itself suffering the same fate it did in Minneapolis, and will almost assuredly forfeit any hope of receiving an NCAA Tournament at-large bid.