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Having one of the most prolific top lines in college hockey, Michigan’s three-man unit of freshman Kyle Connor and juniors JT Compher and Tyler Motte has made the Wolverines a near lock to make the 16-team NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011.
Lest people forget, the Wolverines’ second line are no slouches either, a reason No.6 Michigan could be on the verge of ending an 18-year national title drought.
“Going into the depth of the season, you need depth and you need your second and third line to produce,” said junior Alex Kile, responsible for one of the second line’s two goals to lift the Wolverines in a 4-1 victory over Wisconsin Friday at the Kohl Center. “We’ve been playing good all year. We’re kinda getting overshadowed by that first line. They deserve all the credit they get, but we are just productive in tough games like this.”
Make no mistake that Michigan (18-4-4, 9-2-2-1 Big Ten) still relies heavily on the production of its top line, which delivered the first goal off the stick of Motte, the last goal by Connor on an empty-netter, and five assists, but the goals by sophomore Dexter Dancs — the game-winner at 8:20 in the second period — and Kile’s power-play tally off a deflection in the third period were the back-breakers.
Since Kile, Dancs, and Cristoval Nieves were put together on the same line Jan. 30, Michigan is 3-1-0 and averaging four goals per game.
“The (second and third) goals were precious,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “We’re not going to score six goals per game. … Goals are going to be hard to come by, teams are going to tighten up, and we have to be one of those teams.”
Leads have rarely been safe between Michigan and Wisconsin (6-13-6, 1-8-2-1) this season. In the teams’ two-game series in Ann Arbor in early December, the Wolverines erased 3-0 and 4-2 deficits for a 6-4 victory in game one, only to give up leads of 2-0, 3-2, and 6-5 the next night in a 6-6 tie.
While the two teams traded goals in the first period tonight, Michigan throttled down after the first intermission, putting 13 shots on goal in the second period and 19 in the final.
“We knew they were going to push back, so we just had to get up early,” said Motte. “They pushed back at the end of the first and then we tried to get all over them in the second. We managed to pop a few up.”
If Wisconsin goalie Matt Jurusik wasn’t on his game, who knows how many goals Michigan could have registered. The freshman stopped 36 shots, including 26 inside the circles or closer, to keep UW close.
“Matt’s been unbelievable this year,” said sophomore Ryan Wagner, as Wisconsin dropped to 1-11-3 at home against conference teams over the last two seasons, with the only win coming last Feb. 20. “He’s been making saves, you stand up on the bench and you’re like ‘Wow, how did he make that?'”
The night was a challenge offensively for Wisconsin, which got few premium scoring chances and was awarded its only goal off a video replay in the first period. Second-line winger Jedd Soleway checked defenseman Joseph Cecconi into the left post seconds before Wagner’s shot behind the goal line bounced off a defender and into the unhinged net.
A lengthy review benefited Wisconsin to tie the score (officials ruled that the goal was “imminent” and wasn’t affected by the crocked net) but that was the end of the offense, as the Badgers couldn’t match the Wolverines’ speed and experience.
“It’s a similar story for us against a very good team,” said Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves, whose entire team barely outscores Michigan’s top line (134-128). “We did not do enough to get the job done to get over the hump. We flirted around again, but we didn’t win enough battles.”