The last time the No. 4 Michigan hockey team faced Notre Dame, its top line of Matty Beniers, Brendan Brisson and Kent Johnson went uncharacteristically silent. Fresh out of the Olympics, the trio combined for just a single goal over two games.
Facing elimination from the Big Ten Tournament on Saturday, though, the “Hero Line” lived up to its nickname.
With the Irish committed to an all-out backcheck, the Wolverines faced an uphill battle trying to find the net. But by cycling the puck and weaving through Notre Dame’s defense, Michigan’s top line scored both goals to vault the Wolverines into the Big Ten Championship game.
“They were all excited to play with each other,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “You can see it on the first goal, just the creativeness and skill that they had. You don’t want to give them much time or space or room, because they can make you pay.”
That payment had to wait awhile, though, thanks to a combination of the Irish’s shot blocking and stellar goaltending from Matthew Galajda. Of the top line’s seven first-period shot attempts, only four made it to the net, while a one-timer from Brisson rang off the corner. They were knocking on the door, but Notre Dame held it squarely shut.
“Right out of the gate, we were getting a lot of chances, firing pucks to the net,” Beniers said. “I just kept saying every time we got back to the bench ‘It’s coming, it’s coming, we’re getting it.’ ”
But while the players were confident, flashbacks of their previous frustrations in South Bend came to mind. With a Big Ten Championship game on the line, the Wolverines needed them to step up.
It was something the top line had prepared for. In practice, Pearson spoke with them about their role. He kept his message simple:
“Just do what you’re good at,” Pearson said. “Just play. Just play to your strengths and your ability and do it really well.”
And what they were good at — scoring — soon showed. After Johnson carried the puck in against two defensemen, he dished it to Beniers to spread the Irish’s unsettled defensemen. After Beniers and Brisson passed back and forth to make Galajda bite, Beniers sniped it past him for the lead.
The top line had returned.
And when Notre Dame tied the game and Michigan needed the trio to deliver again, it did.
As the Wolverines worked the puck along the boards and drew the Irish out of their defensive structure, Brisson skated through the vacant slot and into quiet ice. Showing their usual telepathy, Beniers grabbed the puck and met Brisson on his tape. The result was inevitable:
Brisson glided for a second and fired it past Galajda, netting the eventual game winner.
“I wasn’t gonna try to change on the fly, I trust our guys to play (against Michigan’s top line)” Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said. “They just capitalized. They’re good players and that’s what’s gonna happen.”
After treading water since returning from Beijing, Michigan’s top line finally played up to its potential again. Their daunting scoring talent posed problems for opponents, but they couldn’t put much on the scoreboard. In the biggest moment of the season, though, they showed their dominance.
In the process, they may have also locked down their nickname.