You saw a taste of it Friday night against No. 19 Western Michigan.
Jake Slaker, Josh Norris and Will Lockwood made things happen.
However, in the opening game of the season, the No. 11 Michigan hockey team’s top line had a slightly different look. Instead of junior forward Slaker, Michigan head coach Mel Pearson went with sophomore forward Michael Pastujov instead, opting for a moderately bigger and more physical option in the crafty, speedy line.
And though the line produced a goal, a change was needed after the Wolverines lost that game to Vermont, 5-2.
And that change was Slaker.
Slaker had been the heir apparent for the first line after the previous year’s top line — the Dexter Dancs, Cooper Marody, Tony Calderone line — had departed. Of the returning players, Slaker had the second-most points and the most goals at 27 and 15, respectively. And more importantly, he did it with Norris as a linemate. So it was a surprise to many when he was put on the third line to start this season.
But upon being promoted to the first line, Slaker’s performance has justified the decision.
Since his entry into the line, the top-line forwards have produced three goals and two assists.
“Last year, Slaker played with Norris pretty well the whole year. I just showed Josh the line chart today from last year when we played in the regional,” Pearson said. “We had Slaker and Warren and Norris together. So Josh and Jake played well together, and we feel there’s some chemistry between Will and Josh right now. And you’re trying to find that chemistry.”
Chemistry is essential for success in any sport, but especially hockey. As Slaker noted, the game is so fast that sometimes the players must have a sixth sense for where their teammates are on the ice.
“Sometimes, you don’t really have a chance to look,” Slaker said. “You kinda just know where the guy is or you kinda sense where the guy is, and I think that just comes with time and situations, and we’ve only played two games together this year, and now we’ve got Lockwood, a new linemate. So I think once we play a little longer together, it’ll really add the chemistry.”
In Friday’s matchup against the Broncos, Norris initiated an offensive attack midway through the second period. Slipping through the defense, he drew the defenders and brought the puck to Joseph Cecconi, who in turn passed to Lockwood. Set in front of the net, Lockwood scored Michigan’s second power-play goal of the game.
“They’re all good players,” Pearson said. “They all can skate, They all can score. They all can create offense.”
The offensive push continued minutes later, this time with Slaker.
“It was a power-play goal,” Slaker said. “(Sophomore defenseman Quinn Hughs) made a nice pass to Josh, and Josh likes to take that (one-timer) on that side, and it’s one of those things where usually the net front guy falls off back door just to be an option. If he does miss the net or if he does rebound, then I’m right there.”
Slaker capitalized after a hard battle for the front of the net. Earlier in the week during practice, Norris had approached Slaker to talk about what to do in that situation. It was a chemistry-building moment that can only strengthen a line. So during the talk, Norris suggested to Slaker to fall off and put his stick towards the net.
“Honestly, I didn’t even see the puck,” Slaker said. “It came so fast, I just had my stick and placed it and I felt it go off.
“I was just pretty excited. Just one of those situations where you kinda get the ball rolling for the season, and happy it came then because it turned out to be a pretty big goal as it came down to a 6-5 game.”
And it wasn’t just Slaker who had the ball rolling. The three linemates and their chemistry displayed potential throughout the weekend that had Pearson seeing flashes of last season.
“We saw some good things,” Pearson said. “We’ve seen Norris score, we saw Slaker score, we saw Lockwood score this weekend so that’s good. We think that can be a really dominate line, not unlike the ‘Run-DMC’ line we had last year, with Dancs, Marody and Calderone. We see that they can play against anyone else’s top line.”
The difference between Pastujov and Slaker’s top-line impact is style. Whereas Pastujov has a little bit more of a physical play-style, Slaker complemented his linemates with his speed, puck control and puck movement.
“I think once we get our chemistry going, we can really get something special going,” Slaker said.