Ann Arbor — Steve Racine has the best seat in the house as Michigan’s goaltender to get a good view of freshman phenom Kyle Connor work his magic in leading the nation in goals and scoring.
Connor, a 19-year-old from Shelby Township, was picked in the first round — 17th overall — by the Winnipeg Jets in last year’s NHL Draft. He then showed why, putting the puck in the net 35 times while also getting 34 assists for 69 points.
Connor was never better than in the Big Ten tournament this past weekend at the Xcel Center in St. Paul, becoming the first Michigan player to score four goals in game since Hobey Baker award winner Kevin Porter in 2008 in Friday’s semifinal win over Penn State, then contributing a goal and three assists to rally the Wolverines back from a 3-2 third-period deficit for a 5-3 championship game victory over Minnesota.
Connor will enter the NCAA tournament loaded with confidence, accounting for nine goals and 12 points in the last four games – all wins – during the past two weekends. No. 5 Michigan (24-7-5) will play Notre Dame Friday in the Midwest Regional at Cincinnati. Faceoff is 5:30 p.m.
So, how does the 6-foot-1, 180-pound Connor compare to last year’s freshman phenom at Michigan, Dylan Larkin, who had 15 goals and 47 points with the Wolverines and has now become an All-Star with the Red Wings his rookie year?
“I think they are different players,” Racine said. “Obviously, both are unbelievable players. Kyle is more of an offensive threat in the offensive zone. Dylan was more of a 200-foot player, had the puck a lot more so Dylan was more of a playmaker and Kyle more of a pure goal scorer. It's insane to watch him (Connor) play. His skill is just unbelievable.
“A player that comes to mind when I watch Kyle, one that I grew up was Pat Kane, so good with the puck, every time he has the puck you know something special might happen, that’s the closest comparison that comes to mind.”
Not bad, especially since Kane has led the Blackhawks to three Stanley Cup championships, scoring 30 goals in 2010 at age 21, then another 10 in the playoffs, including the game winner to give Chicago fans their first Stanley Cup title in 49 years.
Michigan coach Red Berenson breaks into a big smile when Connor’s name comes up, and for good reason. He wondered where the Wolverines were going to get their scoring from this season after losing Hobey Baker finalist Zach Hyman (22 goals, 54 points), captain Andrew Copp and Larkin, now all playing in the NHL with Copp leaving after his junior year and Larkin after his freshman season.
“Some players have a good game or a good weekend, but he’s had an unbelievable season,” said Berenson of Connor. “This last week, to score four goals in one game, it just seems like when the puck’s on his stick it’s in the net. And, the line has been good.
“Kyle is a player that anticipates. He gets open all the time, like every time we’ve got the puck he’s open so you can look to give it to him, then you might get it back because Kyle Connor passes the puck pretty well, too."
Michigan’s top line — Connor and juniors Tyler Motte and JT Compher — is made up of Hobey Baker candidates with Motte scoring 31 goals and Compher second nationally in points (14 goals, 60 points). The Wolverines lead the nation in scoring (4.89).
And, Connor has "had an unbelievable season." He had 12 goals and 25 points during his first 17 games, culminated by being named MVP of the GLI, then went on to have 23 goals and 44 points during the final 19 games while playing full-time with Compher and Motte.
“Our team is really coming together lately, we’re playing our best hockey at the most important time and it’s really benefiting me personally,” Connor said. “It starts with just work ethic, just doing the little things right and I think the offense and success comes after that.”
This is the first time Michigan has two 30-goal scorers since the Wolverines entered the 2008 NCAA tournament ranked No. 1, led by Porter (33) and Chad Kolarik (30), eventually losing to Notre Dame in the national semifinals in the Frozen Four in Denver.
Compher is impressed with Connor’s work ethic.
“He’s continued to work hard all year, improve his game and work on those skills,” said Compher of Connor. “He has high-end skill, but he works on them all the time. You don’t get there by accident. It’s been great to be a part of it and see him grow as a player.
“When he got put with me and Tyler we kind of told him that we’re going to play against other teams top guys, and the important thing isn’t how many goals you’re going to score, but making sure you get the puck out of the zone and win those little battles, so we can go play offense. He took to that right away and continues to improve on that and it’s been a big part of his game.”