The Michigan hockey team entered Value City Arena in Columbus on Friday night as close to perfect as it had been all season.
The Wolverines were coming off back-to-back weekends that featured a Great Lakes Invitational title and a series sweep against Michigan State.
Michigan notched its two victories against the Spartans in a commanding fashion, recording its largest series goal differential of the season — finding twine 15 times while conceding just five goals on the defensive end.
But the Wolverines’ two-game stint against Ohio State ended in a different fashion: with players from both sides trading blows at Yost Ice Arena in a fight that is rare in college hockey.
The brawl was emblematic of Michigan’s experience all weekend. The Buckeyes repeatedly put the Wolverines on the ropes, mercilessly landing shots that would reduce most teams to an embarrassing two-loss weekend.
Each time Ohio State had seemingly locked down an upset victory, though, Michigan found salvation through the play of its first line.
That line — comprised of junior forward JT Compher, junior forward Tyler Motte and freshman forward Kyle Connor — combined for nine of the 13 goals the Wolverines scored this weekend, leading them to a tie Friday and a victory Sunday.
In both games the trio erased Buckeye leads in the blink of an eye, proving no mountain is too steep to climb for the potent Wolverine offense.
“I don’t have to give them a message,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “They’re leading our team, and good for them. You need somebody, or a group, to really lead your team — particularly when you get behind. We’re behind again tonight like we were on Friday, but we found a way to dig ourselves out again.”
The sheer total of goals the first line scored isn’t even what’s most impressive about its performance this weekend. Instead, Motte, Compher and Connor seemed to have the clutch gene in their DNA against the Buckeyes, lighting the lamp just when Michigan needed it time and time again.
Just over a minute into the third period Friday, Connor sniped a one-timer past Ohio State netminder Matt Tomkins to extend Michigan’s unanswered scoring run to three.
After allowing three straight goals to open the game, Connor’s finish was a key one — providing the Wolverines with an opportunity to play the third frame as if it were a brand-new game.
Though Michigan went on to let a win slip through its fingers on a defensive zone faceoff with seven seconds to play, Connor’s goal was the spark that allowed the Wolverines to be in a position to steal three points from the Buckeyes.
The freshman rounded out the weekend with two more goals Sunday, both of which trimmed Ohio State’s lead to one. Connor’s second goal of the night came just 52 seconds into the third period and led to the four consecutive finishes that left Michigan standing on top.
With his three-goal weekend, Connor is now tied for first in the NCAA in goals this season with 18.
As if an offense that scores an NCAA-high 4.86 goals per game isn’t scary enough, Motte is one of the three players Connor is tied with in the category.
The Buckeyes had no answer for Motte on Sunday, as the junior forward notched his first career hat trick to close out the series, and had an assist to go with it.
Like Connor, Motte found the back of the net at moments that entirely shifted the momentum of the contest — tallying a go-ahead goal in the first period before burying an equalizer and another go-ahead in the third.
“For me, it’s just working with these guys,” Motte said. “They make it pretty easy on me, getting me the puck in prime scoring areas. The timing of them just happened to be (go-ahead and tying goals) tonight.”
Then there’s the captain.
Compher didn’t endlessly pepper the back of the net like his two line partners, but he did add a pair of goals for himself. The more important of those two came Friday.
Trailing late in Columbus, the Wolverines were searching desperately for an equalizer after mounting a comeback from a three-goal deficit.
With the score sitting at 4-3 and just 2:41 remaining on the game clock, Compher held the puck behind the goal line searching for an opening. But when no passing lane presented itself, he took the matter into his own hands, cleverly banking a shot off the goaltender’s back and into the net.
And while Motte and Connor may be leading the NCAA in goals, they can largely thank Compher for that.
The junior has been the maestro behind the offense all year, racking up 25 assists in 21 games — good for second in the NCAA in that category.
“I think since (our line has) been put together, we just move the puck well,” Compher said. “We’ve been able to get in good situations in the offensive zone, working down low, creating turnovers and burying chances, which has been a big thing.”
This weekend, the Wolverines were very far from perfect.
They allowed 11 goals in two games after allowing just five the series before.
They let a six-point weekend escape them in seven seconds.
But with the first line they have, maybe, imperfection will do for now.