Fighting for a role in the starting lineup on a Michigan hockey team with copious amounts of NHL-caliber talent is no easy task. But amid an open third defensive pairing for the fifth-ranked Wolverines against No. 7 Harvard this past weekend, freshmen defensemen Luca Fantilli and Johnny Druskinis were thrust into a starting role.
Both Fantilli and Druskinis have seen sparse playing time through the first two months of the season and thus have faced the challenge of staying prepared to play on any given night without the luxury of a guaranteed starting spot. And to add another wrinkle, the two had never played together in-game before Friday night.
Nevertheless, against a skilled Crimson opponent, Fantili and Druskinis stepped onto the ice and were up to the challenge, finishing with an overall positive-one plus-minus and picking up two assists in the process. Learning and growing together on the fly, they prevented Michigan from skipping a beat.
“I love how we got to play together this weekend,” Fantilli said Monday. “I think we showed that our off-ice chemistry definitely related to it on ice and just knowing where each other were. We were talking, we were communicating and it just felt like we were chatting outside the rink and it was just all kind of connected.”
The Wolverines’ next-man-up mentality has been tested all season and Fantilli and Druskinis were the latest to have their names called.
Fantilli and Druskinis fluidly jumped into the weekend. Their poise and flexibility paid dividends for a Michigan program still dealing with lingering injuries, though the two were rarely tasked with shouldering the load.
That’s not to understate their efforts though. Fantilli and Druskinis exist in an uncomfortable position. Constantly fighting, game days in the starting lineup are more than simply chances at wins. They’re an audition. An opportunity to carve out new spaces for their play and dedication to be realized in the starting lineup the next weekend.
“I knew coming in advance that it was going to be a struggle,” Druskinis said after his first start against No. 4 Minnesota on Nov. 21. “I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but if you want to play at a big school like this, you’re going to have to earn every minute out there.”
For Fantilli and Druskinis, the little things have big meanings. From winning board battles at practice, to keeping their minds and bodies right, they need to capitalize on each and every competitive opportunity given to them.
“It’s nice that it wasn’t easy, it makes you better,” Druskinis continued. “We compete every day, so it keeps our compete level right there. It’s what I love about it.”
The two maximized their opportunities this past weekend and that success was felt team-wide. Needing to rebound from its short-handed losing sweep at the hands of the Golden Gophers, Michigan secured a win and a tie, as well as needed pairwise points that will matter as the Wolverines look down the road towards the Frozen Four.
Meanwhile, Fantilli and Druskinis keep their feet planted in the present.
For many young players, the pressure to crack a starting lineup can backfire, diminishing their confidence and stunting their growth. In college hockey, patience is a skill and just like a wrist shot, or a poke-check, it’s one that needs to grow for a player to grow their game.
“I committed here because I trust what they have planned for me,” Fantilli said on Oct. 25. “And what’s going to happen is going to happen. I’m going to work hard every day and I’m going to get better every day. And whenever my time comes, it comes.”
Though their roles in the starting lineup may still not be fully fleshed out, Fantilli and Druskinis are ready for whatever comes next.
For now, the opportunity is there. And the two look to prioritize having a patient and prescient presence of mind as they continue working towards turning the audition into a recurring role.