Last Tuesday night and into the early hours of Wednesday morning, sophomore defenseman Cam York and freshman forwards Matty Beniers and Brendan Brisson were celebrating a gold medal at the 2021 World Junior Championships. It was the culmination of seven games played in 12 days and having spent a month away from the Michigan hockey team.
Just three days later, they suited up for the Wolverines against Michigan State, despite the strenuous schedule of the two weeks prior. The trio didn’t even participate in a full practice with the team between the gold medal game and Friday night, only taking the ice for a brief morning skate prior to playing the Spartans.
“Coming back from that whole experience is pretty emotionally and physically tiring,” Beniers said. “We were pretty dead when we got back after about a month of being away. So we talked to our coaches, and they were like, ‘Hey, we want you to play, but it’s up to you guys.’ And we kind of just made up our mind, like, ‘Hey, we’re gonna do this, for us and for the team, and we can take some days off next week.’ ”
Much of the dialogue between York, Beniers, Brisson and the Michigan coaching staff focused on how best to get the three of them ready to play back-to-back games over the weekend. They had to determine how to get them rested and reacclimated to the team so that they could play as effectively as they did prior to the team’s break.
“It’s just rest and recovery,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “They did have a light skate Friday morning. They came out just to touch the puck a couple times, but that was about it. … It’s hard to get ready. I think mentally was the hardest part.”
Added Beniers: “(We) took care of our bodies physically, like stretching and doing ice baths so that we were able to play and not be kind of burnt out.”
On both Friday and Saturday, York, Beniers and Brisson all demonstrated that, despite their long absence, they didn’t miss a beat. Each played an important role in the Wolverines’ two games, showing off the talent that made them key contributors in Michigan’s first eight games.
York assisted on two of the Wolverines’ first three goals in Friday’s 9-0 win and broke up a Michigan State two-on-one with a smooth poke check when Michigan led 2-0 — a play that set the tone for the Wolverines’ dominance.
But what York did in Saturday’s game, a 3-2 loss, was arguably more impressive. In the first period, Michigan lost sophomore defenseman Keaton Pehrson — York’s typical defense partner — to a game misconduct with just over a minute left in the first period, leaving it with five defenseman for the remainder of the game. Playing extended minutes following a demanding stretch of games, York performed as impressively as ever, highlighted by a wraparound, cross-crease pass that Brisson deposited in the back of the net to give the Wolverines a 2-1 lead with less than five minutes left in the game.
“Even though he played big minutes, he doesn’t waste a lot of energy,” Pearson said. “He picks his spots. Again, I thought he was just a huge boost. He’s a real warrior for us in that game, and the weekend really, and I told him so. I told him after the game Saturday on the way to the bus, I just thanked him and told him you were a warrior the last couple nights. He made a huge difference.”
Beniers also showed no signs of wear and tear from World Juniors. The freshman forward has garnered lots of praise this season for his true 200-foot style of play while contributing on both the power play and penalty kill, and made his presence felt all over the ice in both games. Beniers tallied a goal and an assist in Friday’s game, but his most impressive play of the weekend was a sequence in Saturday’s game in which he held the puck alone in the neutral zone, killing 20 seconds of a Spartan power play.
Most importantly for Michigan, though, was that the chemistry between Beniers and freshman forward Kent Johnson — who played on possibly the Wolverines’ most effective even-strength line together all season — was not lost. The duo was on the ice together for four of Michigan’s nine goals on Friday, with the puck rarely leaving the offensive zone on many of their shifts.
“It was pretty natural when we got back,” Johnson said. “We’ve done a lot of work before he left and obviously he had a great tournament there so he was feeling good.”
When York, Beniers and Brisson — along with forwards Johnny Beecher and Thomas Bordeleau — missed the Wolverines’ series against Minnesota from Dec. 8-9, Michigan struggled to generate offense, scoring just one goal in two games. With all three picking up right where they left off, the Wolverines looked much more like the team we saw over their first eight games.