The Michigan hockey team has found its own version of Miami’s infamous “Turnover Chain.” The Wolverines carry a chain around for weekend series, symbolizing that they are only as strong as their weakest link.
And in Michigan’s conquest at Minnesota last weekend, junior forward Brendan Warren was the link holding the chain together. The junior’s three-goal outburst helped the now-20th-ranked Wolverines complete a sweep of the Golden Gophers at Mariucci Arena for the first time in 41 years.
Warren notched Michigan’s fourth and fifth goals Friday night, including the eventual game-winner, to bury then-No. 9 Minnesota, 5-3. Twenty-four hours later, just 1:13 into Saturday’s contest, he scored again to catalyze the Wolverines’ 3-1 victory.
Warren has already eclipsed his career high with six goals this season. His .158 shot percentage is more than double his sophomore campaign’s clip and three times his freshman output. Against the Golden Gophers, Warren took just three shots all weekend, but each one found the back of the net.
Even with his recent uptick in offensive involvement, Warren credits his teammates for feeding him in prime shooting areas — and a little bit of “puck luck.”
“Team success usually leads to individual success, so that was something that helped me out,” Warren said after Tuesday’s practice. “My linemates also helped, playing hard and playing with speed, getting the pucks to me and putting the pressure on Minnesota so that I could get more opportunities myself.”
Michigan coach Mel Pearson often talks about players who are “natural goal-scorers” and can create these opportunities for themselves. Warren, however, isn’t typically on that list.
Instead, the Carleton, Mich. native is a skater who flies under the radar, his contributions minimally reflected on the scoreboard.
“He’s hitting guys, he’s moving his feet, he’s blocking shots, he’s on the penalty kill,” said senior forward Tony Calderone. “He does everything that doesn’t show up, but is a huge part of our team. It’ll be good to see how he progresses.”
Warren’s speed is evident during games. He wins battles on both sides of the ice, scrums in the corner and in front of his own net. He leads all Michigan forwards with 22 blocked shots and has a textbook shot with a quick and smooth release.
Until last weekend, Warren didn’t have many chances to put that shot to use. But following a shoulder injury to sophomore forward Will Lockwood during last month’s World Junior Championships, that all changed. With Lockwood’s season most likely finished, Warren replaced the left winger on the second line.
And just three games into his new role alongside linemates junior Jake Slaker and freshman Josh Norris, Warren has already displayed the stroke coaches and players regularly praise.
Pearson has stressed hitting the net and not forcing bad-angle shots to help reverse the Wolverines’ recent goal-scoring slumps. Warren has caught on to that message and it has shown.
“Too many times, you miss the net when you’re trying to pick the perfect spot,” Pearson said. “Just make sure you get it away quick, under-handle the puck and get it on the net. And I think that was really the key for Brendan.”
Success breeds even higher expectations, and Pearson has openly challenged the new-look trio to continue its offensive surge.
“They look good and they’ve got all the ingredients you look for in a line,” Pearson said. “They’ve got defensive responsibility, speed, scoring, playmaking, so it’s nice to see them have some results. Get some results and then that encourages them and gives them more confidence.
“We haven’t had that line together other than the three games, but they’ve gotten the opportunity in the three games and they’ve scored. That’s a real positive. They have a chance to be our best line.”
Despite never playing on a top line on a roster full of branded superstars, Warren’s solid all-around game has already been noticed. He was selected by the Arizona Coyotes in the third round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft and prior to the 2017 draft, his rights were traded to the Philadelphia Flyers.
For his dominant weekend in Minneapolis, Warren was named the Big Ten First Star of the Week. According to his teammates, the recent accolades are long-awaited and well-deserved for the player who does it all on the ice, but is frequently overlooked.
“He’s a guy who works hard every night,” Calderone said. “He might not be rewarded on the scoresheet, but he does all the little things, so it’s nice to see him actually get rewarded. I think with a little bit of confidence now, that could leap him into a good second half here.”
Added junior forward Cooper Marody, also a Flyer prospect: “Brendan is playing awesome, just working his butt off. He’s a guy who doesn’t get a lot of recognition that he deserves.”
Pearson called for secondary contributors to be factors heading into the Minnesota series. Warren answered. Now, he must ride the current momentum entering a gauntlet of showdowns with top-ranked conference foes in upcoming weeks.
“We have big dreams of making a run here and continuing to jump the standings in the Big Ten,” Marody said. “We need those guys to continue to step up like that.”
The link of Brendan Warren kept the Wolverines’ chain together in a hostile Mariucci Arena. And with his elevated confidence, Warren is determined that link doesn’t break anytime soon.