OMAHA — So you want to know how valuable T.J. Hensick is to the Michigan hockey team? At this point in the season, there’s one thing you need to know: The Wolverines are 14-0-0 when the sophomore Hobey Baker candidate scores a goal.
This weekend, Hensick scored three goals and added two assists. So you can probably guess what happened, Michigan swept Nebraska-Omaha on the road. The Qwest Center seemed like a pretty tough place to play — especially down two goals, like the Wolverines were on Saturday night. But Hensick’s been special for pretty much the entire season. He has been the Wolverines’ crutch when they’ve needed one.
He leads Michigan in scoring (41 points), goals (19) and assists (22). He’s also tied for the team lead with two game-winning goals. Three times this season, he has been the CCHA Offensive Player of the Week, more often than any other Wolverine. And he made a strong bid for another one of those awards with this weekend’s five-point performance.
But recently, Hensick — who is the only draft-eligible Wolverine — had struggled to put any marks on the scoreboard. Coming into the weekend, Hensick had scored just one goal and had tallied a measly three assists in the previous six games — average numbers for a lot of players but a slump if you’re T.J. Hensick. And, not surprisingly, Michigan was 2-2-2 during that stretch.
Other teams have figured out that he’s a big part of the reason they keep losing to the Wolverines, so they’ve geared their defenses to stop him. It was most noticeable in Columbus. Whenever Michigan was on the power play, the Buckeyes shadowed him up the ice. They wouldn’t let him touch the puck. They had probably watched too many tapes of Hensick going coast to coast with the puck and murdering teams on the power play.
Northern Michigan did the same thing when it came to Yost Ice Arena the next week, and Nebraska-Omaha coach Mike Kemp had clearly seen tape of Hensick, too.
“He is on another level most nights,” Kemp said after Saturday’s game. “He is an awfully talented hockey player.”
I don’t know who is Michigan’s fastest player based solely on speed — from watching sprints every Tuesday for the last five months, I would guess it’s either Jeff Tambellini or Mike Brown. But one thing is certain: With a puck on his stick, Hensick — who, at 5-foot-10 and 187 pounds, is one of the team’s smaller players — beats them all. The Howell native might even be faster with a puck than without one, and players seem to completely misjudge his speed. If I was going to count the number of times I’ve seen opposing players try to cut him off at the boards only to see him fly by, I’d need more hands.
Saturday, with Michigan trailing 3-2 halfway through the third period, Hensick got the puck at center ice from freshman Kevin Porter and took the play into his own hands. There were three Nebraska-Omaha defenders in the zone, but Hensick skated past all of them and put the puck over the glove of Mavericks goalie Chris Holt.
“A lot of his plays were individual efforts,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “I don’t think it matters who he plays with. He’s a special player, and, when he gets going, it’s hard to stop him.”
Hensick also scored a power play goal just minutes after being hit in the neck with a stick. But it’s not just his scoring that made him special this weekend. The sophomore seemed to have hoisted the team on his shoulders. He expected himself to win the games for the Wolverines.
With three minutes left, the opportunity was right for a line change. Everyone but Hensick left the ice. Either he or Berenson — or most likely both — wanted to make sure the team’s most dynamic player was on the ice with the clock winding down. Just one minute later, Hensick sent a perfect cross-crease pass to David Moss for the game-winning goal. And after the game, the Wolverines’ leading scorer admitted that he put a lot of pressure on himself to create something.
“Last week against Michigan State, I was disappointed in myself that I couldn’t bury any chances and give our team a win, or give our team a lead, or give our team some momentum,” Hensick said.
Even without talking to Hensick, you could tell that he was hungry this week. You could tell that he was tired of being in a slump — if that’s what it was. You could tell that he was going to make sure Michigan came out of Omaha still in first place. There aren’t many players who can do that at will, but Hensick is one of them.
Over Thanksgiving break, Berenson sat Hensick for a 3-1 loss at Wisconsin because of Hensick’s poor play on defense. At the time, he was leading the team in points but had a plus-minus rating of zero. Since then, he has a rating of plus-11.
Halfway through Saturday’s game, Hensick got clocked against the boards, and, as he got to his feet, Michigan was clearing the puck through the neutral zone. Shaking off the hit, he could have just skated back towards the bench and taken himself off the ice. But Hensick stayed in the play, and, when Michigan turned the puck over in the neutral zone seconds later, Hensick was waiting — ready to make the defensive stop. Berenson has said numerous times this season that Hensick is at his best when he’s playing defense and being physical. This weekend, he showed that he can do everything the team wants him to do, but he also scored some timely goals and had game-winning assists in both games like only T.J. Hensick can.
“I was brought here to score big goals and be a part of the big offense — and I think I was able to do that this weekend,” he said after Saturday’s game.
And if he keeps putting the puck in the net, the Wolverines will probably keep winning. I mean, it’s worked each of the last 14 times.
Ian Herbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.