Kyle Connor shines in postseason debut

Friday, March 18, 2016 - 10:35pm

Freshman forward Kyle Connor skates the puck up the ice in the second period just before scoring a hat trick during Michigan's 7-2 victory over Penn State in the semifinal game of the Big Ten Hockey tournament on March 18, 2016.

Freshman forward Kyle Connor skates the puck up the ice in the second period just before scoring a hat trick during Michigan's 7-2 victory over Penn State in the semifinal game of the Big Ten Hockey tournament on March 18, 2016. Buy this photo
James Coller/Daily

 

For one reason or another, superstar freshman forward Kyle Connor has had a hard time convincing onlookers that he is the Michigan hockey team’s best player this season. After four goals and a natural hat trick in his collegiate postseason debut, that debate will likely never happen again.

With 14 minutes to play in the second period of the Big Ten Tournament semifinals on Friday afternoon, Connor fielded a pass from junior linemate JT Compher at the defensive blue line and flew up the ice. He shook off a Penn State defender, cut left to his forehand and buried the quick wrist shot.

When his teammates mobbed him at the boards, he flashed a sheepish grin from ear to ear. The smile took the words out of everyone else’s mouth: “Wow.”

“I’m a firm believer that Kyle Connor is the best player I’ve ever played against,” said Penn State forward David Goodwin. “I even told him that in the handshake line.”

The goal was the second tally of a natural hat trick — three consecutive goals — for the freshman in his first Big Ten Tournament game. The performance likely cemented Connor’s case as the Hobey Baker frontrunner and certainly elevated him past any Michigan freshman in recent memory.

Connor is quiet, reserved and maybe even shy. He doesn’t get the national attention Boston University’s Jack Eichel did during his Hobey Baker-winning freshman season, and there is no lofty praise of his leadership abilities. It’s hard to fathom now, but Connor was even cut from the USA squad at the World Junior Championships this fall.

After Friday, though, there is no doubt — Kyle Connor is the best player on Michigan’s roster, and the best in the country.

When Connor scores, he does it with style. His goals don’t just look easy, they look casual. His precision is absolute, his timing lethal.

“There’s not many freshmen that can have a Hobey Baker season, but Kyle Connor’s having it,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson.

“I didn’t expect he would score 20 goals, let alone 30. But I knew he could be an impact scorer.”

Connor’s freshman season is among the most impressive feats in the modern history of college hockey. He owns a 24-game point streak as well as the national lead in points (65) and in goals (34).

Whether it’s a product of his shy demeanor, his slight frame or his underclassman status, the reticence to anoint him Michigan’s best player seems misplaced.

As for Connor, he’s not worried about the Hobey Baker, the goals or what anyone else is saying about him.

“You know, it doesn’t really change anything for me,” Connor said. “I think we’ve still got a championship here to win.”

But beneath all the accolades, comparisons and questions raised, there’s one underlying truth about his game — no one in the country can score like Connor can.