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There’s more to Michigan hockey than star power

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The Wolverines need their more experienced, less-heralded players to step up in order to maximize their potential.

COLLEGE HOCKEY: JAN 31 Ohio State at Michigan
Michael Pastujov scored a pair of goals in Michigan’s win over Lake Superior State on Saturday.
Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When the Michigan hockey team fell into a shocking 4-2 hole to Lake Superior State this past Saturday, it wasn’t the Wolverines’ heralded freshmen and sophomores delivering the response their team needed. Instead, it was Michigan’s more experienced depth players — the players the casual college hockey fan wouldn’t recognize, the players you probably won’t see lighting up the NHL in a couple years — who brought the Wolverines back.

Michigan’s charge, which consisted of five unanswered goals over a 22-minute span to close out a 7-4 win, was sparked by goals by fourth-liners Michael Pastujov and Jimmy Lambert. Luke Morgan, the Wolverines’ extra skater, had two assists, including one on Lambert’s game-tying tally. Meanwhile, Michigan’s loaded first line — Kent Johnson, Mackie Samoskevich and Matty Beniers — had just a pair of assists between them.

Morgan, a sixth-year senior who began his college career at Lake Superior State, won’t bring much scoring punch most nights. But he can fill a valuable role on this team with his skating speed and energy. His assist on Pastujov’s first goal was a zone-to-zone rush that ended with a perfect pass right to Pastujov’s stick.

Pastujov has had an up-and-down career at Michigan, plagued often by injuries. As a freshman, he found his way into the lineup midseason, eventually scoring the game-tying goal in the Frozen Four against Notre Dame. He scored 19 points as a sophomore but just nine as a junior, before spending much of 2020-21 as the Wolverines’ leading goal-scorer.

It’s a sign of the Wolverines’ respect for the fifth-year forward they approached Mel Pearson midway through last season, asking him to make Pastujov an alternate captain. Pastujov is a clear leader on this team and it seems to be evident in his playing style.

His second goal, Michigan’s third on Saturday, wasn’t necessarily flashy — Pastujov just decided to he had to make something happen. He chipped the puck out, outskated two defensemen to it, turned on the jets and went five-hole on the breakaway.

Here’s Morgan again just a few minutes later, picking off the puck near the boards, skating down ice and shuttling it to Lambert to tie the game.

What’s clear from these goals is the Wolverines’ third and fourth-liners won’t create tic-tac-toe moves and pass teams to death, nor will they dangle through an entire defense. When they create scoring chances, they come through hustle and a nose for the puck. Coaches call on players like Pastujov, Morgan and Lambert primarily to bring energy and grit, and that’s what they brought Saturday.

It’s worth noting Lambert’s game-tying goal came at the end of a penalty kill. He and Morgan are on the ice in those situations for a reason, and for the weekend, Lake Superior State was just 2-for-12 on the power play.

Lambert, Pastujov and Morgan are three of 16 Wolverines who have recorded a point so far this season. That group also includes veterans such as Nolan Moyle (two assists) and Garrett Van Whye (one goal, one assist), showing depth and experience is still a central part of Michigan’s roster.

The Lakers are one of the least talented teams Michigan will face this season. Even so, they had plenty of experience, played physical hockey and didn’t back down from the Wolverines. Beniers, Johnson, Owen Power, Brendan Brisson, Thomas Bordeleau and the like might be able to overwhelm opponents with star power from time to time, but it won’t happen every night.

So when things don’t come as smoothly as they came for Michigan in the video below, it’s the veterans who have to be responsible for getting things moving in the right direction.

“We’ve got a lot of guys who’ve played a lot of games, and we’ve seen a lot of situations,” Pastujov told MGoBlueTV after the game. “We go down a few, it’s on us to let them know that it’s okay, just gotta keep playing and keep playing the right way. That’s where the seniors, juniors really have to step up.”