Team USA snub part of the fuel for Michigan’s Kyle Connor’s scoring surge

12/4/15          HM15-Wisconsin (Fri)                           6-4 U of M victory

Conventional wisdom would say that Kyle Connor has been playing with a chip on his shoulder since being passed up for Team USA when the World Juniors team was assembled in December.

That’s only half right.

Yes, he said he was disappointed when he was bypassed from getting a midseason tryout despite competing in the team’s summer camp.

But no, he said, despite the timing of his rise, it’s not the driving force behind his recent surge to lead the nation in scoring (20 goals, 22 assists) and scoring average (1.83 ppg).

The biggest reason he’s vaulted into the national spotlight has been that he’s been paired with juniors Tyler Motte and TJ Compher since Dec. 4.

All three are listed among the Hobey Baker candidates and are having career seasons.

Motte, who tallied nine goals in each of his first two seasons, leads the country with 23 goals and is tied for seventh nationally with 32 points in 23 games.

Compher, who had 31 points as a freshman and 24 as a sophomore, ranks fifth in the nation with nine goals and 27 assists (second in the nation) for 36 points.

All told, the CCM line has combined for 113 points and is giving opposing goalies nightmares. The Wolverines are 16-3-4 overall and 10-1-2 since putting the line together. They’re also riding a nine-game unbeaten streak (8-0-1) heading into this weekend’s home-and-home series against rival Michigan State.

12/5/15 The University of Michigan ice hockey team tie Wisconsin, 6-6 (SO, W), at Yost Ice Arena in Ann Arbor, MI.

“That line has been dangerous every night,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “And you know, it’s not all skill. Typically it’s the second effort by one of those guys on the line. They beat someone to the puck, they win a race, they dive for a loose puck and poke it to their linemate and then they all benefit from it. It’s been a hard-working line and they’ve got something going right now and it’s good.”

The surge hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Michigan ranks fifth in all polls and fourth in the PairWise rankings. It also leads the nation in scoring at nearly 5 goals per game (4.92). Last week Big Blue hung 13 goals in a 7-4, 6-3 sweep over a very solid and disciplined Penn State team.

The final game of the series was part of the Big Ten’s Super Saturday at Madison Square Garden. More than 13,000 fans got to watch CCM and the rest of the Wolverines erupt for four goals in a dominating third period — their modus operandi this season — to blow the game open.

Could it be as easy as throwing three NHL prospects together? And how did it happen?

“I don’t know why we got paired together. I think (coach) was just trying different combinations out and we just clicked right away,” said Connor, the 17th overall pick by the Winnipeg Jets in last year’s NHL draft. “I don’t think (being left off Team USA) was a direct result of what I’ve been doing lately. I think I just got some games under my belt and adjusted to the speed of college hockey.

“But any time you’re passed over for a team, yeah, it hurts. I think I could have helped them, but you never know. It’s ok.”

Team USA came oh-so-close to making it to the gold medal game, taking home the bronze. Hindsight being 20/20, as good as Team USA  was it isn’t too hard to believe Connor could  have provided the extra oomph.

But why dwell on the past when the future looks so bright and the present is so fun?

Connor is enjoying a successful freshman campaign that could arguably make him the favorite to be the second consecutive freshman to win the Hobey Baker behind Jake Eichel, now with Buffalo.

Like Eichel, Connor will have the option of leaving for the pros after this season, but it’s not something he said he’s thinking about.

For now, he’s comfortable on one of the most talented lines in the country and winning.

Compher was a second-round pick of Buffalo in 2013, but was traded last summer to the Colorado Avalanche. Motte, a fourth-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2013, has been known as more of a grinder prior to teaming with Connor and Compher. Last season he led all Michigan forwards with 43 blocked shots.

“That’s the secret to a good line,” Berenson said. “They all seem to do something on every player. It doesn’t matter who scores or how, whether it’s speed, skill or second effort. But boy, the puck is going in for them.”

Above: Since being placed on a line that includes Tyler Motte and TJ Compher, Kyle Connor has been on fire. (Courtesy Michigan Athletics)
Middle: Tyler Motte makes up one third of Michigan’s potent CCM line along with Kyle Connor and TJ Compher. (Courtesy Michigan Athletics)

Dave Dondoneau

Dave Dondoneau is a freelance writer based in Honolulu