A couple of months ago, it looked like the Wolverines might stumble into the CCHA playoffs as they did last season. But unlike last year, they swept their last three series to keep first place and surge into the playoffs.
Instead of looking forward to the CCHA tournament, let’s look back to a more important time — when Michigan was losing. Just one month ago, Michigan was at the end of a four-game span in which it won just one game. The Wolverines lost a home game to Northern Michigan and then blew two late-game leads against the Spartans.
In the span of two weeks, their lead in the conference went from a comfortable five points to one dangerous point. But what happened in those two weeks? What was different about the team then? It doesn’t take long to figure that one out.
Sophomores Mike Brown and David Rohlfs were both out for each of those four games. The two forwards were infected with mononucleosis over winter break, and they both sat out for those two heartbreaking series. In those four games, Michigan averaged 1.75 goals per game, almost three goals per game less than Michigan has averaged this season.
This season, Brown and Rohlfs have combined for eight goals and nine assists, so it’s clearly not their scoring that has made them such an integral part of the team’s offense. What is it that has made both Brown and Rohlfs fifth-round NHL picks?
The short answer is their size. At 6-feet-3 and 234 pounds, Rohlfs is one of the biggest guys on the team. He would be short for basketball and light for football, but, in hockey, he’s huge. Brown is a little bit smaller at 6-feet and 210 pounds, but he is one of the strongest and, even more importantly, fastest guys on the team.
“If you can’t beat them in the alley, you can’t beat them in the rink,” long-time Maple Leaf executive Conn Smythe said.
Brown and Rohlfs may or may not know who Smythe is, but Smythe would almost certainly like their style. It’s clear to me that big, physical “enforcers” are important to the success of any hockey team. But until this year, I didn’t realize how much impact they had or why they were so important to helping the team win. So I asked.
“Physically, we’ve got to be hitting,” senior defenseman Eric Werner said. “A lot of the coaches and a lot of teammates say a hit equals a goal.”
If that’s the case, then Brown had at least a hat trick in Friday’s conference-clinching win at Bowling Green. Brown hit one of the Falcons so hard that his feet flew above his head and his body crashed against the boards. Brown’s hit actually did lead to a goal when, moments after the hit, junior Andrew Ebbett got the puck in the left circle and fired a shot at senior captain Eric Nystrom who tipped the puck into the net and gave Michigan a 2-1 lead.
That might have been the biggest hit of the year, and the boards at BGSU Arena might still be shaking. But practically every game, Brown makes powerful hits seem routine. And it’s not always clear why his other hits result in goals for the Wolverines.
Some of Michigan’s leading scorers — sophomore T.J. Hensick and freshman Chad Kolarik — helped me figure out what it was that Brown and Rohlfs do to help them score goals. Michigan coach Red Berenson changes the lines just about every month, but Hensick and Kolarik have each gotten a chance to play with these guys at some point during the year.
“They definitely give us room out there,” Kolarik said. “They’re big boys. They hit everyone that moves.”
Oh, so I get it. They physically clear out room on the ice. Hensick is a great puck-handler, but he can’t do much with the puck if the defenders are always putting bodies on him and forcing him to give up the puck.
“They grind in the corners and get us the pucks,” Kolarik added.
That’s pretty self-explanatory, but I realize it’s more complex than just skating into the corner and getting the puck. These guys bang along the boards and, actually, scare people. They get players to cough up the puck, and they punish those who don’t.
“He’s a good guy to have around,” Hensick said about Brown. “He protects his teammates when necessary, and he’s a grinder.”
So they make sure that some of the smaller, skilled players don’t get picked on. That makes sense too. When opposing skaters challenge goalie Al Montoya, Brown is one of the first guys pushing and shoving. He keeps them away. So I guess I realized that there is no one thing that this duo does to help its team win. They do just about everything.
And here’s the bottom line: They make their teammates play better. For all the obvious reasons, and all the less obvious ones that Hensick and Kolarik helped explain, Rohlfs and Brown make things easier for the players who do score and handle the puck with regularity.
And that’s what makes them important. For these guys, scoring doesn’t define them.
But winning does. And if the Wolverines want to keep winning, they need the two of them as much as anyone else on the roster.
-Ian Herbert can be reached at email@example.com.