Fans didn’t even have a chance to get comfortable at Yost Ice Arena before the Michigan hockey team found Penn State’s net Saturday night. Thanks to a crisp pass from junior Brendan Warren as he raced down the left side, freshman Josh Norris got a perfect set up for a textbook one-timer just 26 seconds into the game.
The goal was generated with apparent ease, characteristic of linemates who are well-adjusted to sharing shifts and are familiar with each other’s positioning on the ice. However, for this line, it had just been a matter of weeks together.
Warren and Norris, in addition to sophomore Jake Slaker, played as a unit for the first time two weekends ago, comprising the Wolverines’ second line in the Minnesota series.
In light of Will Lockwood’s shoulder injury at the World Junior Championships — taking the sophomore forward out of commission for likely the remainder of the season — tweaks to Michigan’s second line were inevitable. What wasn’t a given, though, was the smoothness of their transition.
“We haven’t even really talked about Will, within the team, that we don’t have him,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson after practice on Tuesday. “That someone has to step up, they all understand that. I think that certain players take advantage of opportunities. … and I think (Warren, Norris and Slaker) have.”
And not only did each of the three individually step up to fill the void, but they also clicked as a unit.
In the series with the Golden Gophers, this second line was responsible for half of Michigan’s offensive production. Warren supplied two goals in the first game, and then — just a minute into the second game — was set up by Norris to light the lamp for the third time that weekend. Norris got on the scoreboard as well, burying the puck on a man-advantage off a feed from Slaker.
Against the Nittany Lions the following weekend, the line showed its initial performance was no fluke. Collectively, the trio accounted for three of the weekend’s seven goals, including half the goals in Friday night’s shutout.
Pearson attributes this to natural chemistry and each line member’s versatility.
“They play off of each other,” Pearson said. “They have some speed, there’s some chemistry. We talk about chemistry all of the time, you can’t force it, it just has to sort of occur naturally. And it’s occurring.
“Brendan has some physicality to him, I know Josh does and Slakes does too. Slakes moves the puck, you can see the passing, they’ve been fun to watch. They’ve got a little bit of everything. … I think they’re all a little more versatile (than the top line).”
While it’s hard to make a direct analogy to the top upperclassmen line of seniors Dexter Dancs and Tony Calderone and junior Cooper Marody — who went on a ten-game stretch providing 42.6 percent of Michigan’s total points earlier in the season — that doesn’t mean similarities are non-existent. This new second line has been instrumental to the Wolverines’ recent dominance, and is a sign that Michigan is building offensive depth.
And the line is versatile, too. Norris and Slaker swapped positions following winter break, in addition to acclimating to their new line.
Norris, who played alongside freshman defenseman Quinn Hughes and Lockwood in the World Juniors, returned to find he would no longer be playing center, but instead on the wing. In Norris’ absence, Slaker assumed the role of center for the Great Lakes Invitational and handled the shift with grace. Pearson decided to let it stick.
“Jake was doing pretty well there,” Pearson said. “So when Josh came back, knowing he had played wing a little bit in the World Junior, we decided to try that, and slide him in there and see how it was. First game back at Notre Dame, (Norris) scored. … With Josh I think it’s important that he has some versatility.”
And this would be the first of many times Norris found the net since reuniting with the Wolverines. The freshman has scored four goals over the last five games, including two multi-point showings over that stretch.
But according to Norris, these accolades have much more to do with his line than they do with his individual performance.
“I think we’ve found some really good chemistry the last couple games, and we’ve been hunting the puck on the forecheck,” Norris said. “All three of us can skate, so I think we’ve been playing to our strengths.”
Slaker echoed this sentiment, adding how the trio’s stylistic similarities have helped the line find success.
“We were not shy of playing in the corner,” he said. “We can all do the same thing. We like to skate, we like to grind on the corners if we have to, but also if the puck is on our stick in the slot we know how to usually find the back of the net.”
And yet, as extensive as the line’s accomplishments have been the past two weekends, this was a mere four outings. This leaves plenty of room for the line to make tweaks and build chemistry as Michigan enters the final month of regular season play.
“They haven’t had a lot of time together,” Pearson said. “So I only think they will continue to get better, which I am excited and encouraged about.”