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January 29, 2013

Three questions: How much worse will it get?

The Michigan hockey team was swept at Western Michigan over the weekend, falling to the Broncos in a weekend series for the first time since 1986. The losses continue to mount for the Wolverines, raising the question of whether this tailspin will ever end.

How much worse can it get?

The good news, if you want to call it that, is Michigan meets rival Michigan State this weekend in a two-game series between the CCHA's 10th- and 11th-place teams, and at the very least, U-M should come out with a victory. The Maize and Blue could even sweep the dreadful Spartans, who are 2-7-0 in their last nine. Of course, the Wolverines are 1-7-0 in their last eight.

Regardless of what happens this weekend, don't be fooled - this Michigan team is on pace for historic lows. Winning just 34.6 percent of their games, the Wolverines are on pace to win 2-3 more games in their final eight regular-season contests, and that seems generous as they prepare for trips to Notre Dame and Ohio State, and home against Ferris State (after the MSU weekend).

If U-M sinks that low, it will finish with its worst winning percentage since Red Berenson's 1986 team went 12-26-0 (.316). At this point, that seems definitively possible.

How much blame does Berenson and his staff share and what does this mean for their futures?

It was suggested over the weekend that athletics director David Brandon should politely nudge Berenson out the door, which is ignorant, stupid and rash. Has Berenson done a great job this year? He has repeatedly said no, suggesting at the midway point in the season that the grade he and his staff deserved was a 'D' or worse, but does one poor season merit his departure?

Two years ago he took Michigan to the national championship game, where it fell one overtime goal shy of winning it all. A year ago, the Maize and Blue extended their NCAA Tournament streak to 22 seasons. This year, those in the know and willing to be honest about it, admitted it could be a struggle. The inexperience in net was a huge question mark, the defense had depth and talent but lacked physicality, and the offense was devoid of proven go-to players.

The situation in net has been a mess. Two talented goalies backed out of their verbal commitments - and John Gibson even reneged on a signed letter of intent - forcing Michigan into a difficult situation in which it was forced to reach for a pair of less talented goalies. They've been bad, and junior Adam Janecyk has not been able to come to the rescue.

The defensive swagger thought to anchor this team took a hit when Jon Merrill was lost for the first half of the season, and it even with his return, the absence of Mac Bennett has continued to handicap the blue line.

The forwards have also underachieved, just as the rest of the team has. And that lack of production has, little by little, eroded the confidence of this team to the point where a close 3-2 loss to Western on Friday night turns into a 5-1 loss on Saturday.

How much of this is Berenson's fault? He's not one to pass the buck, but the goalie departures really hamstrung the Wolverines before the season even began, and Merrill's injury happened at the worst possible time, stripping this team of the confidence it needed to compensate for its two freshman netminders.

He's not off the hook, but Berenson is an incredibly intelligent and ever-evolving head coach that understands game tactics, player development and motivation as well as any other coach in college hockey today and rivaling the very best there has ever been.

Have the players tuned him out? I don't think they have. I believe there is a team slump attitude so prevalent that this team has completely lost its way. That happens in sports. It doesn't make it easy to hear: 'Wait until next year,' especially at a place like Michigan with such tremendous history and tradition, but that's the reality of the situation. And Berenson, who has three years left on a new contract, deserves the chance to right the ship. If he doesn't think he can, he'll be the first to step aside.

Can Michigan rally in the CCHA Tournament?

Short answer: no. Long answer: no. After being swept by Alaska Jan. 11-12, the Wolverines adopted a new focus, the coaches impressing upon their team this idea that they begin playing "playoff" hockey. In the four games since, they won 6-4, lost 3-2, lost 3-2 and lost 5-1.

Michigan doesn't know how to win close games. In fact, the Maize and Blue are 0-6-2 in games decided by one goal. That's abysmal, and in the postseason, contests are (in theory) closer, with one goal often the deciding factor. U-M has given no indication it can win that tight affair, and the chances of the Wolverines even being in close games is slim - nine of their 16 defeats have been by three goals or more.

As it stands today, Michigan would draw Lake Superior State in the first round of the CCHA Tournament. Michigan last won back-to-back games in October, and hasn't swept a series all year, so to envision the Maize and Blue doing just that is a stretch. It could happen, but then the Wolverines would move on to a quarterfinal round against one of the league's top teams.

Watching this team play and self-destruct the moment it encounters a setback should give no confidence that it can win two out of three games in a series.


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