With the Michigan hockey team on the power play against Ferris State on Friday night, junior forward JT Compher cradled a pass from fellow junior forward Alex Kile and rifled the puck toward the net.
Bulldog netminder Darren Smith got a pad on Compher’s shot, but the rebound went right across the crease to freshman forward Kyle Connor, who buried the puck upstairs past a sprawling Smith.
Connor’s goal gave him 50 points on the year, a massive accomplishment for the freshman phenom, and his teammates surrounded him to give congratulatory pats on the back.
But lost in the commotion was another milestone. With his second assist of the game, Compher, Michigan’s captain, hit 100 points in his career and became the first junior to do so since Carl Hagelin, who currently plays in the National Hockey League with the Pittsburgh Penguins, in 2010. The assist propelled Compher to tie New Hampshire’s Tyler Kelleher for first in the NCAA in helpers.
Unlike a week ago, when senior forward Boo Nieves scored his 100th point, there was no fanfare. A public announcement came and went with little crowd applause.
And that’s fine to Compher. That’s how it’s been all year.
While his linemates put up flashy goal totals — Motte has scored in 12 straight games and Connor has 51 points on the season — Compher doesn’t get enough recognition for the intangibles he provides to the line.
On a line with two of the most prolific goal scorers in the country, some could argue that Compher is the most important member of the line. He’s a key cog in a very well-oiled machine.
There’s no one reason that’s the case. And that’s the point. Compher does a multitude of things very well.
Compher does the dirty work. He gets to loose pucks in the corner, and he retrieves pucks on dump-ins. He gets the pucks that give his line mates chances to pad their goal totals.
That’s not saying that the Motte and Connor don’t do the dirty work. But as the center on the line, Compher’s job is to facilitate, and he’s one of the best in the nation at doing just that.
“JT demands the puck, and he’s got speed,” said Michigan assistant coach Bill Powers. “He can carry it, and he sees the ice exceptionally well. So you have a centerman that doesn’t have a weakness, and the other two players feed off him.”
Take for example, Motte’s first goal of the weekend against Wisconsin.
Compher retrieved a loose puck just inside the blue line with his back to the goal. Before he turned, though, Compher saw a streaking Motte cutting behind two Badger defensemen. He spun around and fired a pass straight to Motte, who banged it home to give Michigan the one-goal advantage.
The play exemplified everything Compher does on the line. His hustle, vision and skill make him the perfect third linemate for Motte and Connor.
“The one thing that you really look to our lines is the center on the line dictates so much because everything starts with him on the faceoff,” Powers said. “A lot of time, the puck gets to the middle of the rink. So that’s our centers getting the puck in the middle of the rink, so when Kyle and Tyler get the puck, a lot of times, it is dictated by a puck-carrying centerman.”
Earlier in the week, when Compher was asked about which player on his prolific line should win the Hobey Baker Award, given annually to the best college hockey player in the nation, Compher didn’t have an answer.
“We haven’t talked about anything like that,” Compher said Monday. “That’s out of our control and not something we worry about.”
But Compher should be in the conversation. You could even make a pretty convincing argument that Compher should be the frontrunner.
Not only is Compher a big reason why the CCM line is playing well; he is also one of — if not the best — penalty killer on the team.
With penalty killing, a lot of success comes from working harder than your opponent to get the puck and send it down the ice. Compher does that better than any player on the team. He doesn’t take one play off.
“There’s no way JT shouldn’t be in the discussion (for the Hobey Baker),” Powers said. “Is JT the third wheel on that line? No, he’s as important as the other two.”
Added Motte: “His impact freshman year all the way through now has been unbelievable for the program. The guy works hard every day. I can’t give him enough credit for what he’s done, not only individually, but for the team as well.”
Compher has never put personal accomplishments before team accomplishments, not at Team Illinois, not at the United States National Team Development Program and certainly not now Michigan.
And with Compher on the cusp of leading the Wolverines to their first NCAA Tournament in three years, the tournament berth will probably feel a whole lot better than hitting 100 career points Friday night.
Because the fact of the matter is, Compher isn’t just a key cog on his own line. He’s the engine that keeps Michigan’s scoring machine running smoothly.
Minh can be reached by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @_minhdoan.