Notebook: Fourth line surprises Fighting Sioux, penalty kills stifles fierce attack

Jake Fromm/Daily
Goaltender Shawn Hunwick (31) saves a shot during a game against North Dakota in the Frozen Four semifinal game at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, MN on Thursday, April 7. Michigan won the game 2-0. Buy this photo

By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published April 7, 2011

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Sitting on the edge of the boards at Xcel Energy Center after the Michigan hockey team’s 2-0 victory over North Dakota, the unlikely group wanted to stay in the shadow.

That’s where they thrive.

Instead of standing proudly in the locker room with press swarming around them, freshmen forwards Derek DeBlois, Luke Moffatt and sophomore forward Jeff Rohrkemper — Michigan's fourth line — refused to be interviewed as individuals, but sent Rohrkemper to serve as the line's representative.

The stipulation: His answers needed to begin with “we” and he had to mention his linemates by name twice.

Check and check.

On Thursday, the trio was far from in the shadows — they were on the game’s biggest stage. While many teams drop their fourth line come playoff time, Berenson counted on his grinders for valuable minutes against the high-powered Fighting Sioux attack.

Berenson gives his fourth line the task of being a “plus player” — offensive production isn’t required, but being a brick wall on defense is required.

And they gave their coach both sides of the equation.

“They came out, they sparked us when we needed a spark, and I thought that they outplayed the North Dakota fourth line,” senior forward Matt Rust said. “We talked about it on our flight over, that our freshmen cannot be freshmen anymore — our freshmen need to play like sophomores and everyone needs to play a year older than they actually are.”

The trio was kept out of the scoring summary, but in a game that featured just a handful of quality scoring chances for the Wolverines, the fourth line was able to drive deep into the North Dakota zone and drive the net with speed.

“Being the fourth line, when we get out there it’s all about getting the pucks deep,” Rohrkemper said. “In a close game like that, I think that style of play really benefitted us.”

They held their own in the defensive end, guarding against the ferocious Fighting Sioux offense throughout the entire semifinal. That defensive poise came from battling for the last spots in Michigan’s lineup.

It was a lack of attention to defense that lost sophomore forward Lindsay Sparks a spot in the lineup for most of the season, and it was defense that got Rohrkemper back onto the ice in recent weeks.

These battles were won in the last eight months of practice.

“Once you’re out of the lineup, you get more of an appreciation for being in it,” Rohrkemper said. “Each of us is trying to take advantage of it, and it’s good to see that Coach Berenson putting more trust in us.”

KILLIN’ IT: When Rust received a minor penalty for elbowing just over three minutes into the game, things looked grim.

North Dakota boasts the seventh-best power play in the nation, entering the game at just over a 23-percent clip.

But the Wolverines were battle-tested. In the NCAA West Regional against Nebraska-Omaha and Colorado College, Michigan fought off 12 of 13 man advantages to sweep the regional.

So when the Fighting Sioux came calling, Michigan was prepared. The Wolverines fought the penalty off with ease, almost looking stronger on the penalty kill than they did 5-on-5 for much of the first period.

Michigan went on to shut North Dakota down on all four of its power-play attempts throughout the game.

Both Rust and senior forward Ben Winnett gave the credit to assistant coach Billy Powers, who works the penalty kill extensively in practice.

“It speaks to the great job that our coaching staff does with scouting,” Rust said. “Billy Powers truly cares about our team and the guys who are out there on the penalty kill. It speaks volumes to how hard we truly work. That was one of the most dangerous power plays we’ve faced all year.”

Added Berenson: “Our penalty killers were strong. Our defense played a lot in their own zone. They held up well. I mean, it was an endurance contest for our team. We were playing in our zone.”

A CLARE DECISION: Though junior defenseman Brandon Burlon missed the past two weekends of hockey due to esophagitis, everyone outside the locker room expected to see Burlon on the ice against the Fighting Sioux.

Instead, when Berenson released the lineup Thursday afternoon, Burlon’s projected slot was filled by freshman Kevin Clare. It wasn’t a matter of who was the best player — it was a team decision.

“The coaching staff was worried about ruining the chemistry that our team had," Rust said. “I think we really came together in the Regional with this lineup, and for what it’s worth, Brandon Burlon is a phenomenal player.”

There might be something special about Clare. In his 17 games played this season, Michigan holds a sterling 13-1-3 record.

The statistic gets a laugh and a shrug, but his teammates say there’s more to this freshman than a few emergency starts here and there.

“Clare is the definition of a character guy,” Rust said. “Probably won’t make the flashy play, tries to keep it simple, but I’ll tell you what, there’s not a more mature freshman I’ve met in my life.”