STATE COLLEGE — Friday night, when the Michigan hockey team lost 3-0 to Penn State, its effort lacked many things. It lacked defensive pressure, a functioning forecheck and even its usual goalie. But perhaps most notably for the Wolverines, they lacked any presence whatsoever from their top line.
Combining for just one shot and no points, freshman forward Adam Fantilli and sophomore forwards Mackie Samoskevich and Dylan Duke were inconspicuous in Friday’s loss. Saturday however, in Michigan’s 4-3 overtime victory, they were just the opposite.
In fact, they were so omnipresent in the contest that postgame, Michigan coach Brandon Naurato couldn’t help but wonder aloud whether or not there’s a correlation to be found somewhere between those two outcomes.
“You know, they don’t score one game and we lose,” Naurato said. “They did what they needed to do tonight. That’s a big-time line.”
Describing the top line’s performance as simply doing what needs to be done could be seen as an understatement. But it isn’t. Throughout the season, the trio has been the Wolverines’ most consistent and most potent weapons, and as goes Michigan’s first line, so goes its offense.
There’s a reason that they’re the only grouping that Naurato hasn’t toyed around with or rotated players into. And it’s because with Fantilli’s size and a booming shot, Samoskevich’ speed and ability to operate in the high slot and Duke’s ability to tie the group together as a playmaker, Naurato has found a winning formula. That was especially apparent Saturday.
In just a matter of shifts, it became clear that Michigan’s first line had reversed many of the issues that plagued it Friday. They were able to hold pucks deep, establish a forecheck and move pucks effectively in the offensive zone. And the Wolverines rode that momentum. As a whole, their offense started clicking.
“They’re a good line, they produce, they bring a lot of energy,” junior defenseman Jacob Truscott said. “They create a lot of momentum. And it really helps out the other lines when you can stack shifts together.”
It didn’t take long for that momentum to pay off. Just eight minutes in and on a powerplay, the top grouping hemmed Penn State in their zone, collected their own rebound and distributed a puck from behind the net to Samoskevich who buried it on a wrister.
And the same formula was present in Michigan’s third goal. Fantilli won a battle behind the net, Samoskevich crashed in front of it, and a smart pass and quick shot later, Samoskevich had his second of the night.
“I thought he was unreal,” junior defenseman Jacob Turscott said of Samoskevich. “He’s a goal scorer, that’s what he does.”
Throughout the night, the top line built momentum that the Wolverines needed. And in overtime, after the Wolverines had collapsed and blown a three goal lead, it was once again the top line who helped them regain energy as Fantilli and Samoskevich played hero.
The two entered the zone, Fantilli went to the net, Samoskevich took a shot, and Fantilli corralled and potted the rebound, winning the game.
By the end of the night, the trio had contributed three of Michigan’s goals, six of its 11 points and 12 of its 25 shots. Truthfully, they had contributed the offense. And that hasn’t been a rarity this season. They’ve amassed 45% of the Wolverines’ goals and 30% of their shots. But aside from statistics, or goals even, the top pairing creates momentum that Michigan needs offensively simply by wearing opponents out.
Naurato was right, the top line’s play was exactly “doing what needed to be done.” Because if Friday was the Wolverines without the top line at capacity, Saturday’s overtime victory demonstrated that their presence is something Michigan would really prefer not having to do without.