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It’s January in Ann Arbor, and the University of Michigan Wolverine hockey team sports a 12-2-1 conference record halfway through the CCHA regular season. The Wolverines sit atop the CCHA, in front of the Michigan State University Spartans and the Miami University RedHawks.

A Wolverine icer leads the nation in power-play tallies, and is second in goals and overall scoring. The goalie has set NCAA records for career shutouts and wins.

Expectations are high again as the team focuses on winning the CCHA regular season and conference tournament and — oh, yes — the NCAA championship. Memories of the 1996-97 Michigan dream team led by Brendan Morrison and company, or of the 1995-96 national championship squad?

No, this is the 1997-98 Wolverine hockey team, and pollsters and fans alike are beginning to wonder just how good it is.

Preseason talk had focused on the departing class — among them the Hobey Baker winner in Morrison and another finalist in John Madden, the NCAA’s all-time leader in shorthanded goals; Mike Legg, the owner of the ESPY-winning lacrosse-style goal of the year two seasons ago; a hard-hitting, sniping scorer by the name of Jason Botterill; the muscle of Warren Luhning; and the defensive efforts of Blake Sloan and Harold Schock.

All of those elements led to the winningest program of the 1990s, and all of those positions needed to be filled with new faces. Many in college hockey were unsure how the Wolverines would deal with the challenge — the CCHA preseason coaches’ poll placed Michigan a distant third behind Michigan State and Miami, and fans and experts alike expected a dropoff.

So far, the skeptics are wrong.

Last year’s team garnered 26 points in its first 15 conference games; this year, the sixth-ranked Wolverines have 25 points over the same stretch. Much of that success is due to the performance of assistant captains Bill Muckalt and Marty Turco, whose decisions to stay and play their senior year on a team full of young, inexperienced players have given all concerned a chance to develop into a well-coached, motivated and successful hockey team.

Bill Muckalt turned down an NHL contract with his hometown Vancouver Canucks to play his senior year at Michigan. Muckalt’s 64 points last year were second on the team only to Morrison, and he now hopes to demonstrate that he did more than benefit from playing on the Morrison line.

In fact, Muckalt intends no less than to establish himself as one of the most dominant players in college hockey.

Marty Turco has spent the first half of his senior year showing that he is more than just the beneficiary of playing behind the class of 1997 for the first three years of his career. Turco leads the conference in minutes played and save percentage, and is second in the CCHA in goals-against average. He also holds the NCAA records for shutouts, 13, and career victories with 112.

Incredibly, there is still half of a season for Turco to add to these records.

Perhaps the greatest difference between this team and the 1996-97 squad is its reliance on these two returning players to perform every game. The Wolverines are scoring an average of 3.9 goals a game, compared to 6.5 goals last season. That means that the Wolverines find themselves in close games nearly every weekend.

Evidence? Michigan has played in 11 one-goal contests this season and has come out on top in nine of them. The Wolverines have also managed to pull out three wins and one tie in its four overtime games.

Nevertheless, head coach Red Berenson recognizes that wins don’t come as easily this season as in past years. “This year everything has to be in place,” he says. “Our best players have been our best players night after night. We’re vulnerable, our defense is younger and we don’t have that firepower up front that can keep the puck in the other team’s zone half the game.

“It’s a whole new team chemistry, but our leadership is in place.” Part of that leadership is Turco, who is doing his part to give the Wolverines a chance to win the close games by keeping a GAA of 1.94. Turco recognizes that despite having three consecutive 30-win seasons under his belt, he must take his play to another level this year.

Says Turco, “We expect a lot more shots and defensive breakdowns with so many new young players. I need to stop the puck more often and I need to make more spectacular saves than I have in years past. Before, I could have gotten by on an average season.”

Berenson believes that Turco is up to the challenge. “We have a great goalie in Turco. He has to be a factor in most games at some point and he has been. When there are breakdowns in the game, Turco has to make the difference.

“Turco is now exposed, because he doesn’t have the big defense and the big forwards in front of him. He’s getting more good-quality scoring chances against him than he did last year.”

Berenson recognizes that much of the Wolverines’ success is also due to Muckalt’s maturity and aggressiveness. “He’s been the dominant player in most of our games, and that’s the kind of season he’s been challenged to have [for Michigan to be successful]. One of the reasons that Billy came back this year is to establish himself as one of the premier players in college hockey.”

Berenson believes that Muckalt has adjusted well from simply being a member of the Morrison line to becoming the team’s offensive leader.

“Billy Muckalt is now our feature player. He’s not playing in the shadows of Morrison, Botterill, Madden, Legg and Luhning. Now he’s on his own. Those guys are gone.”

Muckalt embraces the opportunity to step into the spotlight. “I loved playing with Brendan and Jason, but I’m a good player and I can be a good player on my own. I’m not in anybody’s shadow. Each guy has his own turn and I guess it’s mine.

“I’m trying to take advantage of it. I’m just excited coming to the rink to play — and it’s a challenge.”

Muckalt is dominating scoring in the CCHA, having been involved in 42.4 percent of the goals in Michigan’s conference games. Muckalt also accounts for 25.4 percent of the Wolverine goals. In 15 games, Muckalt has 15 goals — five of which were game winners. He also has two hat tricks.

Another major difference between the 1996-97 squad and the present team is the immediate impact of a freshman class of nine. Muckalt believes that team chemistry is progressing enough for this team to contend for the CCHA crown and a bid to the NCAA tournament.

Said Muckalt, “I really like the chemistry and the composition of our team. We’re responding from the freshmen all the way up to the seniors. If we play our best individually and as a team, we’re right there with any team in the nation. This year anybody has a shot.

“We are not rebuilding; we’re reloading.”

Turco agrees, saying that the coaching staff has done much to prepare this inexperienced team for the mental and physical rigors of playing in a conference that has produced the national champion in six of the last 14 years.

“Our character has been shown in all the one-goal games we’ve been in. We’ve been handling the stress and the outside influences very well. That’s a tribute to our coaches. They’ve done a great job. They’ve done a lot more teaching this year.”

Both Turco and Muckalt recognize the importance of strong senior leadership on this young team.

States Turco, “As a senior, as a captain, you really concern yourself with what’s going on with the team in general on and off the ice. You take guys under your wing.”

Adds Muckalt, “As a senior you need to lead by example on and off the ice. Leading by example is better than saying things. That’s what Mike Knuble did for me. That’s one thing our senior class has tried to do. We back up what we say on and off the ice. That’s the most effective way — that’s the Michigan way.”

Whether this “reloading” Michigan team has the firepower to shoot its way into its sixth Final Four appearance in seven years remains to be seen. However, one thing is certain.

Bill Muckalt and Marty Turco will be leading the way.