DETROIT — Ever since Michigan coach Red Berenson decided to throw freshman Alex Guptill, junior Chris Brown and senior David Wohlberg on a line together during the team’s trip to Alaska in December, their prolific scoring has powered the offense.
Michigan traveled 4,000 miles to find the formula for its best line, but it took a far shorter trip to find its sniper.
That top line should have no qualms sharing the workload during the stretch run. With just four regular-season games remaining, junior forward A.J. Treais has answered the call, providing depth as a sharpshooter.
“We had one line going before, and now A.J.’s line is going, and that really helps our team,” Berenson said.
Treais is flanked on the left by one of the team’s rising stars in freshman Phil Di Giuseppe and is joined on the right by Michigan’s leader, captain Luke Glendening. Instead of getting lost in the shuffle, Treais has stood out by, well, playing like himself.
“A.J. — he’s really starting to be A.J.,” Berenson said. “And that’s huge for our team. He’s scoring key goals.”
The two he scored against Michigan State at Joe Louis Arena on Saturday night helped propel the Wolverines to a 3-2 overtime victory.
And Treais’s area of operation has expanded in the past five games, a span during which he has notched six goals. His tallies are no longer just the blue-collar type, where he fools goaltenders from the crease. He’s still earning those goals, but Treais has also become quite the sniper for Michigan, to the point that opposing coaches break a sweat at the sight of him between the circles.
“He played too well,” Michigan State coach Tom Anastos said of Treais. “Obviously, he scored some nice goals for them, and we didn’t do a good enough job of containing him.”
His first tally against the Spartans in Detroit was exactly the type that Treais is used to scoring. After his shot from the slot was deflected by Spartan netminder Will Yanakeff, Treais’s eyes widened to the size of pucks. The rebound was a backhand flip away from resting comfortably in the net, and Treais had no problem sticking it through. It wasn’t a highlight-reel goal, but it’s the kind Treais loves to score.
In the second period, Glendening started an odd-man rush, with Treais just strides behind. The captain fired off a no-look pass that Treais seemed to be expecting — just another example of the chemistry the second line has developed. Treais made his way into the slot and fired off a quick snapshot that beat Yanakeff wide.
“I just put my head down and tried to shoot as hard as I could shoot,” Treais said afterward.
In Michigan’s 3-2 loss to the Spartans on Friday, the Wolverines had a similar opportunity, with Di Giuseppe replacing Glendening as Treais’ running mate. Treais waited back while Di Giuseppe weighed his options.
“I never know what Phil’s going to do,” Treais said. “If he was going to pass, it’s good that he passed early because he had the lane there. If he would’ve waited a little longer, then I think that lane would’ve closed up.”
The shooting window did close, but the passing lane, as Treais said, was open for Di Giuseppe to deliver a perfect tape-to-tape pass to Treais, leading to a one-timer snipe that found twine.
Treais, a Bloomfield Hills, Mich. native, wears his heart on his sleeve when playing against the in-state rivals, some of whom he grew up facing in youth hockey. His mannerisms after the game said it all. After Friday’s loss, Treais didn’t look up from the ground, visibly upset that his team let a two-goal advantage slip away.
“The game’s never out of reach, especially in a rivalry game against State,” Treais mumbled after the loss.
After the win on the Red Wings’ home ice, he was all smiles. But Treais acknowledged how easily the win — and the three “huge” league points that came with it — could have eluded the Wolverines.
“It’s just one bounce in these rivalry games,” Treais said. “Luckily, we got that bounce (on Saturday).”
On Saturday, a rejuvenated Treais skated in a building he’s far more familiar with than East Lansing’s Munn Ice Arena. He grew up playing at Joe Louis Arena for Detroit’s Little Caesars Hockey Club.
“I’ve been playing here since I was 8 or 9,” Treais said. “It just comes easy for me here.”
Unfortunately for Treais, whose team is 3-0 at Joe Louis this season, Michigan won’t have the opportunity to visit again until the semifinals of the CCHA Tournament.
But with the way he’s played of late, Treais’s scoring prowess may land the Wolverines right where they want to be in the middle of March — on the banks of the Detroit River.