Jimmy Lambert’s season was peaking at the perfect time.
When the second half of the Michigan hockey team’s season started, he was ready to put the past behind him. Lambert’s two years with the team have had their fair share of highs and lows.
Last season, he led all freshmen in points despite not scoring his first goal until Jan. 11. His sophomore campaign started differently. Lambert netted a goal in just the second weekend series of the year. Then he hit a slump.
Three weekends ago, Lambert broke the floodgates open. With the Big Ten playoffs just around the corner, the timing of his upswing was critical. He tallied six points in the series against Wisconsin — five assists and one goal. But he also suffered an injury that caused him to miss the next weekend against Michigan State.
“He just started to find his groove,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “Obviously had the big weekend against Wisconsin, the big numbers, and then he gets hurt. And it’s just been a struggle for him to get back since then.”
Now with Lambert out for the season after getting injured again in Saturday’s game against Notre Dame, Pearson is staring face to face with a question that haunted him in the first half of the season.
Who’s going to step up in the absence of an injured player?
Pearson already knows the answer: redshirt junior forward Luke Morgan.
When Lambert missed the series against the Spartans, Morgan slotted into center with forwards Jake Slaker and Nick Granowicz on the wings.
Throughout the season, Morgan has rotated between both of the forward positions. In this situation, his versatility is his strength. It means the responsibilities that come with playing center opposed to the wing aren’t foreign to him, and the position switch is much easier and more seamless.
“It’s not too difficult,” Morgan said. “I do it a lot. It’s just making sure you’re back defensively more. Like in the corners of the D zone, winning battles there instead of staying up at your point. It’s just a small adjustment that you have to think about a little bit.”
But more than Morgan’s ability to easily fill the void at center left by Lambert, is how well his play compliments that of his new linemates.
Slaker’s a shooter. He can put pucks on net and generate scoring chances. Granowicz is gritty; he works hard in front of the net and he’s not afraid of playing physically. Morgan brings speed.
“You’ve got all the things you’re looking for to have a successful line,” Pearson said. “You’ve got some experience, you’ve got some youth. (You’ve) got everything.”
Two weekends ago, the line proved itself against Michigan State in its debut. Slaker scored a goal assisted by his linemates. And Pearson knew the combination he’d thrown together was a suitable replacement for Lambert in his absence.
Besides Morgan’s quick adjustment to playing at the role of center, there are other aspects that have helped make the transition easier. Namely, familiarity with his linemates.
This isn’t Morgan’s first time playing alongside Slaker or Granowicz. And with Lambert done for the season, it won’t be the last.
In the upcoming series against No. 18 Minnesota, Morgan’s line will take the ice. Pearson’s confident in their chemistry. He’s also confident that the line playing on the big ice will be a benefit.
Big ice means a bigger space to work with when moving the puck, especially in the offensive zone. More space means it’s harder for defenders to judge the angle at which to approach an offensive skater. This makes quick players like Morgan, Slaker and Granowicz harder to defend.
After scoring only one goal last weekend against Notre Dame, the Wolverines need to find an answer on offense if they want to have home ice in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. Pearson’s confident that Morgan, Granowicz and Slaker can help with that.
“I thought they played well at Michigan State together,” Pearson said. “They’ve been together before so they’ve got some continuity with them. I think the big ice, those guys all skate pretty well, that’ll be an advantage for them.”