In old EA Sports NHL games, every roster included a “hero line” that you could use in close games or in tough road environments. Each team’s best players would all take the ice together, and you could wreak havoc by ripping shot after shot on goal.
Against Penn State last weekend, the No. 1 Michigan hockey team played with a hero line of its own.
Michigan coach Mel Pearson broke up sophomore forwards Thomas Bordeleau and Brendan Brisson — a duo that had struggled to create 5-on-5 chances. Instead, Brisson took the ice with sophomore forwards Kent Johnson and Matty Beniers. The trio combined for six out of the Wolverines’ 11 goals on the weekend against the Nittany Lions.
Most teams can’t afford to put their best shooter with their best facilitator and hottest hand. They might send them out on a power play, but throwing them into a 5-on-5 situation puts all the offensive eggs in one proverbial basket. If they can’t get the job done, the offense is out of luck.
But the Wolverines aren’t like most teams. With depth scorers like Bordeleau, junior forward Johnny Beecher and freshman forward Mackie Samoskevich — all valuable NHL prospects — the Wolverines can afford to concentrate their offense on one line.
The on-ice product looks astonishing, with slick tape-to-tape passing that utilizes all players on the ice. It’s like a big game of keep-away, and Michigan’s got the puck. A sheer abundance of scoring options permits that movement, and teams like Penn State can’t just choose to shut down one shooter.
“It’s pretty easy to play with guys like that because they get open well,” Beniers said. “You don’t really have to ever call for pucks because they know you’re there. They’ll just pass it to you.”
Despite the trio’s success last week, the Wolverines need to ensure they can find opportunities four lines deep. Teams with experienced, skilled forwards like Notre Dame and Minnesota will find the right aggressive backcheckers on the ice to shut down one good line.
That’s something that Western Michigan exploited, stymieing the Beniers-Johnson-Brisson unit when they played together on the man advantage. The Wolverines scored once on 11 power plays over the series, losing the first game and barely squeaking out an overtime win at Lawson Arena. If those three struggle to score, it can be game over for the offense.
Shutting down that line bodes well for other teams, but the added attention opens up chances for other players to score. As a result of Penn State’s defensive mistakes — which came from shadowing the top line all series — Beecher tallied a goal and an assist this past weekend.
The Wolverines are a deep team, and Pearson knows someone in their ranks can step up and feed the scoresheet.
“I like to run a team where you have 12 guys that can score,” Pearson said. “There’s really not a bottom six or top six even though numbers might indicate there is.”
It’s risky to frontload an offense, but as long as they’re scoring, it all works out. Sending out Johnson-Beniers-Brisson worked against Penn State, and there’s little reason to break up their chemistry if that success continues. They’re scoring and backchecking hard, and that’s something opponents have to pay attention to.
“I’m not saying no one can shut us down,” Beniers said. “But I think it’d be really difficult.”
Michigan showed what its top dogs can do when they play together, proving it can kill opponents with a brutal offensive onslaught. In close games down the road, the Wolverines will likely find themselves needing a goal.
When that time comes, Michigan doesn’t need to make its own hero line. It’s already on the ice.