Tune into a Michigan hockey game and chances are that Kent Johnson and Matty Beniers will catch your eye.
The freshman forwards have taken the Big Ten by storm this year, playing on a line together. Johnson has been on a torrent scoring pace with a team-leading 16 points — and his 12 assists top the Big Ten. Beniers has been successful in his own right, as his 11 points indicate, the third-highest total on the team.
“They’re really engaged with each other as far as how they want to play,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “Matty’s probably got a little bit more of a motor and speed. Kent’s a little bit better cerebrally and (with) what he does with the puck. But they both read off each other extremely well.”
Putting the duo together paid off almost instantly. In their first collegiate hockey game against Arizona State, Beniers found the back of the net twice and Johnson had the primary assist on both goals. They’ve only gotten more comfortable with each other as the season has gone on.
“We both know where we are, where we’re going to be when we’re going around the ice and where we want the puck when we’re shooting,” Beniers said. “We’re just building chemistry right now.”
They have contrasting styles on the ice, but their combination of abilities makes them tough to beat.
Beniers stands out for his ability to play a 200-foot game. He’ll be circling around the offensive zone looking for a scoring opportunity then moments later hustling back to play defense. And he doesn’t let up the entire game.
“He’s never taken a day off, he doesn’t know how to,” assistant coach Kris Mayotte said. “His motor and his compete is elite. You don’t coach that; it’s something special that he has in him.”
Johnson, meanwhile, has a dazzling flare to his game and can pull out highlight reel plays at a moment’s notice. Much like Beniers’s ability to grind out long possessions on both ends of the ice, Johnson’s flashy moves are more of a natural instinct than a coachable trait.
“I just try to not really think when I play and just let my training and my subconscious do the work,” Johnson said. “If I feel like I need to do something between my legs to make the best play, then I’ll do it.”
Johnson and Beniers are both currently projected as top ten picks in the 2021 NHL draft. Having two top NHL prospects on a line together is a rare privilege, and the Wolverines have taken full advantage of it.
Before the season, Pearson emphasized that the key to strong lines is to have two guys who play well together and then build off of it. It’s been a revolving door at right wing on the line, but it hasn’t slowed the duo’s production.
“I think you’ll see them be even better in the second half,” Pearson said. “We just got to find the right guy to put on the right side with them.”
Michigan has a lot of talent on its roster, but if it wants to make a deep tournament run, it will have to push the right buttons to maximize that talent. Halfway through the season, it’s clear that pairing Beniers and Johnson together has been a step towards achieving just that.
“We saw from day one, they’re smart players,” Pearson said. “A smart player needs smart players to play with them.”
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