Photo courtesy Denver Athletics
There’s a reason the word ‘chemistry’ is thrown around so casually in discussions about line pairings in hockey. The assimilation is such an intricate process that must take into account utterly infinite amounts of variables. Sometimes it’s as simple and straightforward that a line will just automatically click. More often than not, it becomes a tedious process on the premise of varying scenarios, physical attributes, skill, IQ and of course, time.
After getting swept by St. Cloud with a pair of 4-3 losses over the second weekend of November, the #3 Denver Pioneers coaching staff went back to the drawing board. It was already evident that British Columbia natives junior Liam Finlay and freshman Brett Stapley had chemistry. Both are loud, quintessential playmakers with smaller physical builds. Finlay is 5-foot-7 and 154-pounds while Stapley is 5-foot-10 and 176-pounds. Both rely on their quick hands and sneaky releases, but what stands out even more so than their similarities in size and style was their shared intuition.
“It’s easy to play with Fins, we’re just really similar,” Stapley said. “When you click like that it makes it easier to read off each other. You have that instinct where you can just look up see them and make a playoff of where they are.”
The pair had a brief prior history to DU when playing juniors for the Vernon Vipers during the 2015-16 season. But nothing substantial enough to draw upon their current successes.
“I might have to bomb that conclusion,” Finlay said with a laugh. “We were on the same team for a year, but maybe played a handful of games that whole time. He [Stapley] was only 16. But I remember even then just being like, ‘Get this guy on my line.’ And a few years later, here we are.”
But despite the seemingly effortless play between the slick and synchronized forwards, the pair needed an edge. That’s where fellow B.C. native Tyler Ward came in. The coaching staff added Ward to the left wing of Stapley and Finlay. Ward, 5-foot-10, and 174-pounds, filled out the missing relentlessness and power.
“They’re all different in some ways and similar in others,” assistant coach Tavis MacMillan said. “Obviously, there’s a natural chemistry with Stapley and Finlay. Wardo is a really nice complement to them. He provides some things to that line that those guys don’t have. Those guys bring things that Wardo doesn’t have. Wardo has adjusted to playing with two skilled kids. He’s got heavy strong hands and he’ll go to the tough areas. He’s finding that those guys will get him passes and he can out muscle and out position himself. With loose pucks around the net, he can really finish. He’s figuring out where he needs to be and those guys will get him the puck.”
Since it’s fruition, the line has offered a balance between shifty flair on the puck and a gritty tempo in tight spaces. The line has combined for 21 points in 13 games together. But more importantly, the line is proving consistency and confidence in clutch situations.
“We needed some secondary scoring to come along and develop after the top line of Guttman’s line with Lukosevicius and Pettersen,” MacMillan said. “We saw that against [Colorado College], they gave us that extra push. We put those guys together after the St. Cloud series and that’s when they started to take off. Now, they’re starting to form some real chemistry after a solid 10 or 12 games together. Hopefully, they can start to build here and continue to take their game to the next level.”
Stapley, a Montreal Canadiens prospect, had a dominant performance in Denver’s 4-4 regulation tie with CC, which the Pioneers won in the shootout. The Campbell River, B.C. native scored two goals including the shootout winner and added an assist. The right-shot centerman now has 16 points on five goals and 11 assists.
Finlay, a Kelowna, B.C. native, anchors the line with his experience having previously played alongside the likes of an offensive superstar like Henrik Borgström. As an upperclassman, Finlay has elevated his game with his abilities to create Grade A chances on net. The right wing is Denver’s leading scorer with 24 points on 10 goals and 15 assists.
Ward, a Kamloops, B.C. native, has found his offensive footing alongside his linemates. The left-shot has 12 points on five goals and seven assists.
While the line agrees the shared hometown of British Columbia could possibly add to their recent successes, it ultimately has come down to their speed as one cohesive unit.
“I think it’s huge we all have the speed, right?” Finlay said. “Wardo has got some weight to him. But I think he’s a better battler. Stapes and I are pretty similar and are more puck-movers. Wardo is a really smart player and plays off of us well especially where we need him to. Together, we can all play at a pretty quick pace. I think that’s why it works.”
As the second half of the season ensues and the playoff push nears, the necessity for depth and production across all four lines is crucial. It’s an area Denver is continuing to experiment with but has felt confident with the steady emergence of this line in particular.
“It’s balance, you’ve got to have some balance in your lineup,” MacMillan said. “You obviously want some your high-end players to convert. But you’ve got to have balance. You’ve got to be able to put teams on their heels. You’ve got to be able to match on the road. [Home] teams are going to last change and they’re going to get the matchups they want and sometimes that will shut down a top line. Now you need these other lines to come along and get some scoring going when maybe the other lines aren’t. We haven’t had all of our lines really going together at the same time yet. But we’re getting closer to that. I think you’re seeing glimpses here and there.”