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March 8, 2013

The road to an NCAA bid begins tonight

And so it begins. Michigan must win two best-of-three playoff series (first up Northern Michigan this weekend), a CCHA semifinal and the conference championship to earn an NCAA berth. But make no mistake, they believe they can.

"We haven't had this kind of momentum all year," said junior alternate captain Mac Bennett. "Guys are a lot more excited to come to the rink now. We have that Michigan swagger back that we've had in past years. We're coming to the rink confident were going to win."

U-M enters the playoffs one of only two teams in the CCHA unbeaten in its last four (3-0-1) after sweeping Ohio State Feb. 22-23, beating Ferris State 4-1 March 1 and topping the Bulldogs in a shootout following a 1-1 tie last Saturday. The Maize and Blue are scoring timely goals and playing better in their own zone while freshman netminder Steve Racine has emerged as a reliable last line of defense.

"He definitely surprised some people last weekend with how well he played," Bennett said. "Saturday, when we gave up two breakaways and we had that one complete melee in front of net, he made a few stops that were very [Shawn] Hunwick-esque. They saved the game."

Racine was Michigan's No. 1 goalie for much of the first half of the year, but after surrendering four goals on 17 shots (before getting pulled) in a 5-4 loss to Alaska Jan. 11, the rookie didn't see the ice again until the opener in Columbus - a span of 42 days.

"Him having so much time off between games, it could have helped him because it allowed him time to forget about all the bad goals, and it was almost a new season where he could start over fresh," Bennett said. "The way it had been going for all of our goalies, I think all of them wish there was a reset button, and maybe that's what that time off did for Racine."

While Racine is playing his best hockey, stopping 92.6 of the shots he faced from Ferris State, it's U-M's defense that has been steadily improving and stands the best chance to extend the Maize and Blue's season.

Head coach Red Berenson switched up his pairings beginning with the OSU series, teaming senior Lee Moffie with junior Jon Merrill, and Bennett with rookie Jacob Trouba, while sophomores Brennan Serville and Michael Szuma have developed a solid rapport as the third duo. The juggling seems to have benefited all involved.

"There is no question we have more stability on our blue line than we've had at any point this season," Berenson said.

"Jonny is playing better. He's 100 percent now [after missing the first 19 games with a back injury], and Moffie is playing better. Trouba and Mac are back together, and Mac is healthy [after missing eight games with a knee injury]. We have two good pairs there, and then Serville and Szuma are doing a good job. They're giving us some good minutes. There is more momentum with our defense."

Moffie had been dreadful for much of the season, racking up a plus/minus of minus-7 in 30 games, but in the past four contests paired with Merrill, he is plus-6.

"We had those guys together last year during our stretch run and they had some chemistry; I think Jonny Merrill settles Lee down and makes him a better player," Berenson said. "It's pretty obvious Moffie has been a different player these past two weeks, a plus player for us, and someone we can count on."

When the season began, Merrill and Trouba were slated to play together and many felt they could be the best defensive pair in college hockey. Merrill missed the first half of the season but upon his return, the famed duo never really took off. Instead, Trouba has complemented the game of Bennett.

"I find that whenever I'm in trouble, whether it be I'm in the corner with a guy on me, or I'm skating back to get the puck and need to make an outlet pass, he's always in the right place at the right time," Bennett said of Trouba. "He just makes my life a lot easier because I know if I'm going to retrieve a puck and I've got two guys bearing down on me, I can take a look over my shoulder and Trouba is right there, and I can get him the puck.

"On top of that, he has a canon for a shot. And I'm pretty good at making sure he gets the puck where he needs it to unleash that.

"When I jump into the play he's got my back. When he jumps in, I've got his. We're there for each other, and that's what defensive partners are supposed to be."

With the three facets - scoring, defense and goalie play - seemingly all coming together at the right time, Michigan enters this weekend's first-round playoff series hot, and by Saturday night the Wolverines could be just four wins from a 23rd straight NCAA appearance.

"If I were coaching one of the other teams in the CCHA, I wouldn't want to play Michigan right now," former U-M captain David Harlock (1990-93) said. "They're starting to get on a roll, starting to believe in each other and play the kind of hockey that we've seen at Michigan for the past 25 years. The way they're coming together, they can beat anybody."


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