Michigan’s top line is the best in the country. That could seem like a sweeping statement, but the stats tell the whole story.
In the 10 games that juniors Tyler Motte and JT Compher and freshman Kyle Connor have skated as a trio, they have accumulated 64 points.
“You can’t create those things,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “It’s special.”
No team has shown the ability to stop the three forwards together so far, but this weekend will be the toughest test. Thursday night, No. 6 Michigan will travel to No. 15 Penn State to play one game, and both teams will head to Madison Square Garden in New York City two days later for a second matchup.
In previous seasons, Penn State has had the Wolverines’ number. Two years ago, the Nittany Lions ended Michigan’s season in the Big Ten Tournament, as the Wolverines needed to beat them only in that game to advance to the NCAA Tournament.
Last season, Penn State beat Michigan three out of the four times they played, including a road sweep at the Pegula Ice Arena — one of the toughest venues in the country with its nightly sellouts, committed fans and vertical bleachers that seem to be on top of the ice.
“Definitely a rink we want to keep quiet,” said senior forward Justin Selman.
Look for Michigan’s first line to do just that. With Motte and Compher being two of the Wolverines’ hardest-working players, and Connor perhaps the their most skilled player, no line has found an answer for them.
“It’s worked well with Connor’s skill, his ability to make plays and finish opportunities,” Motte said. “JT’s grinding ability — he’s a good two-way center man — helps a lot in the D-zone and on faceoffs. (Compher’s) ability to make plays is unbelievable, and I just try to give those guys the puck, and try to put away my opportunities when I get them.”
The trio is the biggest reason for Michigan’s astounding, nation-leading 4.86 goals per game. However, that offense can only take a team so far when the same team ranks 44th in team defense, surrendering 3.10 goals per game.
For this reason, Berenson has emphasized team defense in the weeks leading up to this weekend. The Wolverines have prioritized clearing pucks out the zone and limiting any rebound chances — something Ohio State capitalized on a couple of weeks ago. Selman said the team knows its goaltending can handle the initial shot. It’s the team’s job to make sure there isn’t a second.
Michigan will feature a bit of a different lineup this weekend — sophomore forward Dexter Dancs is suspended for Thursday’s game, while sophomore defenseman Cutler Martin is suspended for the weekend. Freshman center Cooper Marody will also be out this weekend due to illness, meaning junior forward Max Shuart will likely slot up from his fourth-line role to the third-line center position.
Regardless, the Wolverines know what’s at stake this weekend. With their biggest test to date and a depleted lineup, look for the first line to lead the charge.