ST. PAUL, Minn. —With 9:08 left in the Big Ten Hockey Tournament semifinal, freshman forward Kyle Connor roofed a rebound during the Wolverines’ sixth power play of the game.
The goal lamp ignited, marking his fourth and final goal of the Michigan hockey team’s victory against Penn State.
The goal wouldn’t have been possible without junior forward JT Compher. The Wolverines’ captain was the first to fire on net, and Connor was the one to clean up his garbage. Compher earned an assist on the play, giving him a total of five helpers on the night.
The two spectacular individual performances led to something even more incredible — a season sweep over the Nittany Lions. With Friday’s win, Michigan notched its fifth victory in five games against Penn State this season, outscoring the Nittany Lions 33-11 in those matchups.
The victory also earned the Wolverines a place in the championship of the Big Ten Tournament.
But lost among all that drama was the contribution of a less-heralded group: Michigan’s fourth line.
The line — composed of sophomore forward Dexter Dancs and junior forwards Max Shuart and Evan Allen — simply doesn’t see the ice as much as the Wolverines’ other three lines.
But the time they do play is invaluable, especially to Michigan coach Red Berenson.
“I think they give our team some depth, so we're not having to go back to our top lines on a regular basis,” Berenson said. “If we need a breather, these guys can definitely go out and hold their own. So good for them.”
Friday night, the line didn’t just hold its own. It made an immediate contribution.
In the first period, Shuart broke a skate in the middle of his shift. He crawled the entire width of the ice to Michigan’s bench and was replaced.
Just minutes later, he was back on the ice with a new skate blade. The game was tied at zero. In a game that Berenson stressed was important to start strong, leaving things scoreless much longer could have spelled trouble.
But Shuart took care of that problem.
After 10:35 of the first period, the fourth line forward found twine, giving the Wolverines a lead they wouldn’t relinquish for the rest of the game. The finish marked Shuart’s third goal in the past three games.
The fourth line’s effort is valuable enough even when it isn’t resulting in goals. Shuart, Dancs and Allen’s role is simply to be competent — to be good enough to stack up with the other team for short shifts while Michigan’s headliners rest.
And the trio has been far more than competent lately, though. In the final stretch of the Wolverines’ season, the fourth line hasn’t been weathering the storm during its shifts. Instead, it’s been causing havoc of its own, generating scoring chances even when that’s where Michigan — and opponents — least expects goals to come from.
That aspect is even more coveted during the postseason.
“I think that we knew that playoff hockey is a different animal,” Compher said. “Knocking a team out of their season and sending them home for the remainder of the season is something that's hard to do.
“We had a lot of — a lot of players make contributions. Shuart had a big goal, a lot of defensemen stepped up when (Downing) went out. (Racine) kept us in the game. So there was a lot of good effort and a lot of good plays tonight.”
More than anything, against Penn State, the fourth line proved it’s contributions aren’t simply coming against inferior competition.
“I like the fact that they can play against another team that's one of their top lines,” Berenson said. “And they can — they're pretty good with the puck and they're getting some rewards now. Shuart scored the last three goals — or three games now. And Evan Allen played another strong game. And Dexter Dancs and Shuart really play well off each other.”