BY MICHAEL EISENSTEIN
Daily Sports Editor
Published March 25, 2009
Over the past two seasons, he’s tallied 71 assists, the most in the country — and he's just a sophomore.
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But in the first 14 games of 2009, that was barely apparent.
After representing the United States in the World Junior Championships in late December, forward Aaron Palushaj tallied points in just six contests.
The playmaker didn't completely fall off in production — he just wasn’t the player most were used to seeing on the ice.
“I didn’t really get too much of a break there when I went to World Juniors — it was kind of a grind that whole month while everybody was resting,” Palushaj said. “So I came back those few weeks after and I wasn’t myself.
“I think it was just … my lack of effort just because I was so exhausted those weeks coming back.”
Even more taxing may have been the mental battle of playing in the high-pressure championships, in which the United States placed fifth.
“You try to serve your country well, then you come back without a medal (and) it’s kind of a little devastating,” Palushaj said. “Truth is, after we came back, we played Miami (Ohio) twice, and it’s a completely different level of play. You really don’t want to play hockey the next few days.”
Palushaj elected to jump right back into the lineup instead of taking time off when he returned to the Wolverines. He even got on the board with a pair of assists in his first game back, but Palushaj noticed he wasn’t moving his feet well enough, skating hard enough or passing the puck crisply enough. Those were his best attributes in the first half of the season, when he led Michigan in points with eight goals and 17 assists.
Michigan coach Red Berenson saw Palushaj return with less confidence than when he left to don the USA sweater in Ottawa, Ont.
“They’re in a different situation with different players and coaches,” Berenson said about players leaving to play in the championships. “They’re chosen on the team but sometimes they don’t get used the way they get used here. They come back second-guessing themselves. We’ve had kids leave here when they were leading our team in scoring and then they hardly play on the world junior team, for one reason or another.
“We’ve supported the program, but it hasn’t always been a win-win for our players.”
After three or four weeks, Palushaj again began to look like his normal self on the ice.
And in the final weekend of the regular season, the points started pouring in, with Palushaj nabbing two assists against Ferris State at the start of a hot six-game streak.
In the last six games, Palushaj has lit the lamp three times and assisted seven goals. Berenson said the sophomore is close to where he was in the beginning of the season when he “started like a house afire.”
Palushaj's greatly improved defensive play is a major reason he has improved from a plus-10 forward last year to one boasting a plus-25 plus-minus ratio this season. The coaching staff is seeing him buy into Michigan’s emphasis of playing strongly without the puck.
“We rarely recruit a player strictly because he’s good defensively,” Berenson said. “We recruit a player because he’s good offensively, or he’s got the smarts, or he’s got a great combination of skills, a package of skills. Then we’ll teach them how to play without the puck if he doesn’t know. Most of them don’t know.”
And reuniting with his linemates from last year, sophomores Matt Rust and Carl Hagelin, certainly helps, too.
Alongside his classmates, Palushaj put up six points in the NCAA Tournament last season, including three assists in the Frozen Four.
“When they got Palushaj back, it was like getting an old family member back in the fold,” Berenson said. “Then they produced as well.”
Palushaj realizes his role as a playmaker, and his confidence is finally back up to normal after a mid-season lull.
“I’ve just been playing hard,” Palushaj said. “That’s why I think the points have been coming lately.”