Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so goes the saying.
The Michigan hockey team currently finds itself in the middle of the pack. Five points from the top of the Big Ten and, likewise, five points from the bottom. Sitting at 27th in the Pairwise rankings, the Wolverines will need all hands on deck to make a postseason push.
Last season, Michigan was reeling heading into the second half of the season. They were well out of the NCAA Tournament picture and a birth in the tournament seemed improbable.
And as if this season couldn’t get any more similar to last season, the Wolverines are losing one of their top offensive threats to an injury sustained in the World Junior Championship.
After Tuesday’s practice this week, Michigan hockey coach Mel Pearson said he’s a “glass-half-full kind of guy.” Perhaps his mind was already on the impending absence of his star forward, Josh Norris. Moving forward, the team will have to employ that sort of mentality.
The news wasn’t officially released until this morning: Norris will undergo surgery and miss the remainder of the season with an undisclosed injury.
The sophomore is second on the team in points and tied for first in goals despite missing the past six games. He is arguably the team’s best pure scorer and makes a difference every time he steps on the ice –– see Norris’ performance against Lake Superior State. He was having a breakout season: Norris eclipsed his goal total from last season and sits just four points behind his freshman year’s point total in less than half as many games played.
And now, the Wolverines must prepare for life without Norris. But don’t panic –– Michigan has been here before.
Last season, then-sophomore forward Will Lockwood missed the second half of the season after suffering a left shoulder injury in an outdoor game against Canada while representing Team USA. He was a key offensive contributor while healthy in his first two seasons with the Wolverines. In 16 games last season, he tallied four goals and seven assists. As a freshman, he finished second on the team in points with 20.
“There’s just a lot of scary similarities with this year and last year,” said junior forward Nick Pastujov. “You lose a guy in World Juniors, we come back after Christmas with a couple big wins against Ohio State and Notre Dame this year compared to a couple wins against Notre Dame last year.”
Michigan’s season has been so similar to last season already, it’s almost humorous.
So, if there is any silver lining, many of the leaders on the team have experienced what it’s like to find success after losing one of their top offensive weapons.
“I think one of the main teaching tools you get off of it is that there’s still a lot of season left,” Pearson said before today’s practice on the lessons learned from last season’s experience. “The team still can have success even though you might not have one of your main characters involved, you can still have a rewarding season, and that you can still reach your goals.”
It’s almost as though the Wolverines this season are inadvertently paying homage to last season’s roller coaster. Some of the similarities –– such as the injuries –– are out of the team’s control and, rather, are a result of poor luck. But others –– erratic goaltending amplified by the team’s mediocrity through the halfway point of the season and signature conference wins early in the second half –– are a result of player performance and give fans and team members, alike, a sense of déjà vu.
“We went through it last year, I guess that’s the other thing that we can look back upon,” Pearson said. “It’s a little déjà vu, same situation. We have a player go to the World Juniors, gets hurt, out for the year. We’ve seen this act before, and we’re just gonna have to follow the same script this year.”
Consider it an impromptu encore of sorts.
If there is one form of consistency Michigan has shown this season, it is found in inadvertently following that same script from last year. Once again, it is losing one of its “main characters,” as Pearson put it, for the second half of the season.
And that script that Pearson hopes to follow was a collective effort. Last season, then-freshman forward Jack Becker increased his point total from zero to eight in the second half of the season. Another player who must continue to make an impact this season is junior forward Nick Pastujov. He is currently tied with Norris for the most goals on the team –– more than doubling his goal total from last season –– and has appeared on the top line alongside Lockwood in the absence of Norris.
“I think all four lines need to kind of dial it in like we did last year where coach could kind of put out any line against any matchup,” Pastujov said. “I think all the lines need to kind of step up there.
“So, I think it’s just one of those things where we have to stay on the right path, don’t really get too discouraged about it. We’ve seen what we can do when we play good teams. I really don’t think there’s no reason we can’t make the same run we did last year.”
Winning at Notre Dame and Ohio State without Norris showed what the Wolverines are capable of doing moving forward. Michigan already faced an uphill climb to make it into the NCAA Tournament.
But they’ve been here before.
“We don’t know, we don’t know what the ending is going to be,” Pearson said. “We have a choice to make sure we do everything we can to make it a storybook ending.”
Cazares can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jcazares98 via Twitter.