Winnett, For the Win
Low-Scoring Senior Saves a Goal For Huge Moment
by Matthew Conyers/CHN Staff Writer
ST. PAUL, Minn. With 6:34 left in the first period Thursday, Michigan's Ben Winnett scored his first goal in 21 games.
The goal, which saw Winnett take hold of a John Merrill rebound off the cross bar and put it past North Dakota goalie Aaron Dell with a low wrist shot, was a long time coming.
“Obviously throughout my four years I haven’t been very proficient offensively,” Winnett said Thursday after Michigan’s surprise 2-0 victory over North Dakota in the National Semifinals at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. “And going into this game and the role of my line, I knew we weren’t expected to be turned to for a lot of offense. So to be able to go out there and get a goal feels pretty good.”
Winnett, who was a proficient scorer back in junior hockey in Salmon Arm, British Columbia, hadn’t registered a goal since Dec. 30 in a 6-5 victory Colorado College, and it was his first point since a 2-0 victory over Alaska on Jan. 21. Winnett had just three goals and seven points entering Thursday’s semifinal, following seasons of 6, 4 and 6 goals, respectively.
For a player that had been lacking in marquee moments, the goal, which grew bigger and bigger as the game wore on, was a memory to last long after the end of the night.
“I put Winnett with [Matt] Rust and Luke Glendening and between the three of them I think they have 15 goals,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “They played a against a line that had 69 goals, and yet they outscored them.”
But Winnett didn’t arrive in Ann Arbor with the need to score goals. Instead the British Columbia native has accepted other roles — like that of senior leader this season.
“He’s the best,” Merrill said. “He’s got that senior leadership and he’s really taken all the freshmen under his wing and showed us the way.”
That doesn’t mean Winnett can’t score goals.
As a forward for the Salmon Arm Silverbacks in 2005-06 and 2006-07, Winnett found the back of the net plenty. Winnett had 18 goals in his first season with the Silverbacks and 27 goals in his final year.
Then again, Thursday’s goal didn’t come in the British Columbia Hockey League.
It came on a stage Winnett had been working toward his whole career.
“This is the biggest stage I’ve played on and that’s what I’ve been using as motivation the last couple of games,” Winnett said. “I may never play at a level this high again with a group of guys I care about this much.”
So Winnett took in his goal, enjoyed it for a few brief moments, then moved on to Saturday’s championship with Minnesota-Duluth.
“The team will relish in this win for a few moments and then we’ll be thinking about Minnesota-Duluth,” Winnett said.
Still, point streaks — whether good or bad — are rarely talking points in the Michigan locker room, especially for a team like this year's, which has relied upon balance and all four lines contributing.
“We really take pride in the fact that we don’t care who scores — it could be anyone,” Merrill said. “We are just happy to get a goal for the team. ... We were ecstatic for [Winnett] but if anyone else scored it was the same way.”
This season, the Wolverines have prided themselves on a team first attitude that starts with the seniors and finds its way down to the freshmen.
“Coming into the year [the seniors] knew we had to take on a serious leadership role whether that was through playing well and performing or just taking guys aside and setting examples,” Winnett said. “This is definitely the closest team I’ve ever played on. I never seen a group of guys care about each other so much as well as the coaching staff.”
That spirit was alive and well Thursday as Michigan came out blocking shots and doing anything and everything to get to Saturday.
“It got pretty loud when they were announcing North Dakota players as opposed to our lineup so I think knew we were obviously the away team [Thursday] and we had to create our own energy,” Winnett said.
And that attitude can sometimes bring out the best in any player at this time of year.
“Well, you think about it, Ben Winnett had three goals, he’s a senior — I expected more of him in his senior year,” Berenson said. “But I can tell you he’s playing his best hockey right now — whether he scores or not.”