Seniors Fleming and Smaagaard help make Minnesota’s fourth line an asset

by Ben Goessling

Minnesota men’s hockey center Ryan Potulny calls it the best fourth line in the country, but for Jake Fleming and Garrett Smaagaard, even that high praise comes as something of a backhanded compliment.

For the two seniors, saying their line is the best No. 4 in the country is flattering, but it also assumes the unit is a fourth in the traditional sense of the word.

And Fleming and Smaagaard’s roles aren’t traditional.

“That’s where we’re put on the depth chart, and when we’re matched up with other fourth lines we’re successful,” Fleming said. “But half the time, we don’t even match up (with other fourth lines). If you want to call us a fourth line and you want to call us the best fourth line in the country, that’s fine with me.”

The line, which included freshman Tom Pohl last weekend, was probably the third-ranked Gophers’ most effective line in a 5-4 win over Denver on Friday. Smaagaard tallied Minnesota’s fourth goal, and he and Fleming assisted on defenseman Judd Stevens’ tally later in the second period.

For the weekend, the group finished with a plus-minus ratio of plus five.

Because the home team gets an extra five seconds to send out a line after a whistle, the Gophers’ fourth line often is matched against an opponent’s top unit, and Minnesota has more than held its own in those situations.

“On the road, we’ve got to deal with whoever,” Smaagaard said. “We just try to bring energy to the lineup, and it worked last weekend.”

The unit has matched up successfully against first, second and third lines all season, and for the Gophers, the unexpected depth has been a large part of their 8-3-0 start.

“How they’re listed (on the depth chart) is not where they’re at,” coach Don Lucia said. “They’re probably two of our top six forwards right now.”

Lucia often says Minnesota doesn’t have a pecking order for its lines, and the Gophers’ fourth group is proving that this season.

Its two goals Friday came against Denver’s second and third lines, and in addition to serving on the Gophers’ penalty kill, the line is seeing increased time in four-on-four situations.

Smaagaard, a senior from Eden Prairie, Minn., missed the playoffs last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, but he has returned to score three goals and four assists this season.

Fleming, long seen as one of Minnesota’s top sources of energy off the bench, has also developed into one of its best centers on faceoffs. Among the Gophers’ four regular centers (Fleming, Potulny, Gino Guyer and Jerrid Reinholz), Fleming leads the group with a .604 faceoff percentage.

“I’ve taken a few faceoffs against him in practice, and he beats me every time,” Smaagaard said. “It’s something that develops over time.”

Fleming, who said that he has played center for the last seven years of his hockey career, was 15-for-30 on faceoffs during the weekend and took several in Minnesota’s defensive zone late in Friday’s win.

“Part of it is somehow finding an edge, just by getting more leverage,” he said. “I basically have two or three different techniques that I use. I can take one look at the other center and know where he’s going.”

Neither Fleming nor Smaagaard will leave Minnesota in the spring as one of the best-remembered cogs of the Gophers’ two championship teams.

But in a year when Minnesota is breaking in six freshman forwards, the two seniors afford the Gophers an invaluable luxury.

“We pride ourselves on what we do,” Fleming said. “We’re not on the power play scoring goals at the end of the game. A lot of times it goes unnoticed. You have to realize not everybody’s going to be in the spotlight all the time, and you can accept it or not accept it.”