One look at Jake Slaker’s freshman-year stat line tells you everything you need to know about the 2016-17 Michigan hockey team.
First, the good: Slaker scored seven goals and added 14 assists, ranking seventh among Big Ten freshmen with 21 points and hinting at a promising future ahead.
The not-so-good? Slaker’s 21 points led the team. A season before, Kyle Connor paced the Wolverines with 73.
Slaker put up 21 in something else last season — plus-minus. Minus 21, to be precise.
Granted, it’s hard to fault Slaker directly — he was more symptom than cause. Michigan scored just 2.62 goals per game last season, a drop of over two goals from 2015-16, and had one of the youngest rosters in college hockey; a roster that lost seven of its top eight scorers from a year before.
But that was last season. This season, the Wolverines are in the Frozen Four for the first time since 2011, and Slaker, now an assistant captain, is a bellwether for something else entirely.
The San Diego, Calif. native has been a solid contributor all year long. He’s third in goals, eighth in assists and fourth in total points. But it’s not only about what he’s done — it’s about when he’s done it.
Slaker has shown off a knack for clutch goals ever since Michigan’s second home game against Vermont. On Oct. 21, with the Wolverines down 2-1 with five minutes to play, he fired home a wrister to tie the game. He lit the lamp again with 54 seconds remaining, almost single-handedly stealing a victory.
Against Ferris State two weeks later, Slaker’s two third-period goals were the final nail in the coffin. In Michigan’s biggest game of the season to that point against Minnesota, his goal in the final stanza sent the game to overtime, where the Wolverines claimed a 5-4 victory. When Michigan was left for dead, down 4-0 to Bowling Green in the opening game of the Great Lakes Invitational, he scored two straight goals to lead a near-comeback effort. And it was his empty-netter that wrapped up a victory against Wisconsin on Mar. 2, all but punching the Wolverines’ ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
“He’s just a game-time player when he gets in big situations,” said senior forward Tony Calderone. “He’s moving his feet all game. I don’t know, it might be a coincidence that he scores all of them in the third … But he comes up big when we need him.”
In fact, out of Slaker’s 15 goals this season, 10 of them have come in the game’s final 20 minutes. But he couldn’t tell you why — in fact, he wasn’t even aware of that fact until recently.
“I guess I need to start playing better in the first and second period,” he deadpanned when asked about it after practice Tuesday.
Michigan coach Mel Pearson can’t explain Slaker’s third-period success either. But he has a theory.
“He’s good around the net, and he’s got good speed,” Pearson said. “And maybe it’s because teams break down as the game goes on, and he’s able to use that speed to get to loose pucks and put pressure on people.”
It’s a pitch-perfect description of what happened Sunday afternoon in the NCAA Tournament Northeast Regional final against Boston University. With 13 minutes to play and the Wolverines locked in a 3-3 tie, Slaker was exhausted and near the end of a shift. Eyes still on the puck, however, he chased it into the offensive zone, bearing down hard on Terrier defenseman Brandon Hickey. Under pressure to make a quick decision, Hickey swung his stick and missed the puck entirely, and Slaker jumped on the loose change.
Just Boston’s Cam Crotty stood between Slaker and goaltender Jake Oettinger. Slaker tried to swerve around Crotty before shooting, but his shot hit the defenseman’s right knee. Regardless, the puck deflected off of Crotty and found its intended destination, pulling Michigan back into the lead. The Terriers wouldn’t score again.
Was it somewhat of a lucky goal? Perhaps. But it was Slaker’s forecheck that put Hickey on his heels. It was Slaker skating as fast and as hard as anyone, no matter how tired.
“His speed and the pressure he put on the defenseman to make the error and then get the puck and make the shot, I think that could be some of it because he is a good skater,” Pearson said. “He’s just as strong in the third period as he is in the first.”
That’s the case for his entire line, actually. Slaker, junior Brendan Warren and freshman Josh Norris are three of the Wolverines’ strongest skaters — Pearson believes that the trio skates as well as any in the country.
“We’re getting on the forecheck early, and it lets us play a little bit more on the offensive side,” Slaker said. “So then when we’re playing the defensive side, we can skate harder back and catch the guys. I think it just plays in our favor being faster, just taking pucks to the net and just playing as fast as we can, pushing the pace for the other team.”
Pushing the pace has other benefits, too. Michigan’s first two lines are built much differently — Calderone, senior Dexter Dancs and junior Cooper Marody carry much of the scoring burden, but aren’t quite the elite skaters that Slaker, Norris and Warren are. The Wolverines’ second line may not light the lamp as often, but can break teams down with the stress they put on opposing blueliners, setting up the “DMC” line to inflict a mortal wound.
“They add speed, they get defensemen thinking about where they need to go,” Calderone said. “When they’re moving their feet and they’re going, offensive pressure opens up everything for all the other lines. So once they’re getting pucks deep, hitting guys and skating, it’s dangerous.”
You can chalk Slaker’s propensity for big-time plays up to to pure coincidence, if you so choose. That’s probably fine with him — he pretty much does so himself.
But Pearson frequently mentions players getting rewarded for efforts that usually go unseen. That’s been Slaker all season — working hard in both zones, playing on special teams, skating opponents to exhaustion. And even when he hasn’t directly experienced the benefits of his hard work, others have.
Sunday, Slaker was rewarded. The reward: a game-winning goal and a trip to St. Paul.
And going from a minus-21 as a freshman to being an assistant captain and the third-leading scorer on a Frozen Four team?
It’s a bit harder to call that a coincidence.