Throughout the first half of the season, Michigan’s line chart lacked one thing — stability.
For the first few weeks, coach Mel Pearson tried out some different combinations and witnessed varying degrees of success. He had senior forwards Will Lockwood and Nick Pastujov playing with freshman Eric Ciccolini in the first game of the season against Clarkson. The next night, Ciccolini was swapped out for redshirt sophomore Luke Morgan.
The revolving door at wing continued the next weekend when Morgan was replaced by senior forward Jake Slaker. This new line worked well together, having already played a stretch of games together the season before. But midway through their third game as a line, Slaker got injured. So again, Pearson had to shake up his lines.
That was the story for the first half of the Wolverines’ season. A line would play well together and seem to be building a bit of offensive chemistry, but then an injury would occur somewhere in the lineup and everything had to be reshuffled.
When Lockwood got injured Nov. 8 against Minnesota, the two members of his line were separated. When freshman Johnny Beecher suffered a shoulder injury that limited his ability to take faceoffs, the winger on his line — sophomore forward Jimmy Lambert — stepped into the role of center. Then when Beecher returned, Lambert remained a center but was moved to a different line. Pearson just couldn’t find a stable lineup.
Each time a player had to miss games because of injury, budding chemistry was cut short.
“That’s what you’re looking for, some sort of chemistry on a line,” Pearson said. “We’ve had Johnny and Will at times together trying to find something, but because of all the injuries we had in the fall there … we had to juggle lines for a lot of different reasons. We couldn’t just have our full lineup.”
Now with a fully healthy lineup and plenty of options, Pearson’s lines have yielded results throughout the second half of the season. Michigan has scored 16 goals in its last four games, nearly doubling its goals per game average from the first 20 games.
That means in just four games, Michigan’s offense has produced over a third of the goals it scored in the first half. And while the scoring was shared between a number of players, one line in particular made significant offensive contributions.
It was a line of Lockwood, Beecher and freshman forward Nick Granowicz that combined for five of those goals. The line born out of necessity. Within the opening minutes of the first game against Notre Dame, Pearson knew he needed to mix a few things up to create the matchups he wanted.
He was inspired by the chemistry between Lockwood and Beecher that had been evident in practice. They like playing together. They’ve got size, smarts, defensive awareness, speed. They just needed a little bit of grit, and that’s exactly what Granowicz brought.
With all these factors in mind, Pearson sent Granowicz, Beecher and Lockwood over the boards together midway through the first period of Friday night’s game against the Fighting Irish.
Beecher’s line generated plenty of offense and early in the third period, they found the back of the net. It wasn’t a typical goal, as the puck went in off Granowicz’s head as a result of crashing toward the goaltender.
“… We were on the road those four games,” Pearson said. “So whoever we put on the ice we felt comfortable first and foremost defensively. Then hopefully they can do something offensively. Because you don’t get last change. You don’t want to get a bad mismatch in those games because every game can come down to that one goal where it’s so close.”
While the line didn’t appear on the score sheet in the following game, it created many opportunities. It also made strong defensive plays.
Pearson was impressed. His team’s offense finally seemed to be catching fire. So the next weekend against then-No. 6 Penn State, he wasn’t taking any chances with adjusting lines.
That series, Granowicz, Lockwood and Beecher combined for four goals. The first night, Beecher scored two goals in the 6-0 victory. Lockwood had three primary assists on the weekend. Most notably, though, Granowicz scored two important goals to boost his team to the extra point in double over time.
“I think that’s kind of what our line needed,” Lockwood said. “(Granowicz has) been the key to our line. Beecher and I do a lot of the outside work, and he gets to those gritty areas. He’s been the guy that’s completed our line.”
With 11 of 12 points in their last four games, Beecher’s line is emerging as an offensive power that came at a pivotal point in the season. Now, only Big Ten games remain on Michigan’s schedule. If it wants to extend the season beyond the first weekend of March, the goal scoring, led by this line, has to continue.