Twelve minutes into the NCAA Northeast Regional Final on Sunday, Boston University forward Nikolas Olsson lowered his left shoulder and knocked Michigan forward Niko Porikos into the side-boards.
The senior’s head slammed against the glass and he fell to the ice, where he spent the next 30 seconds kneeling before getting up and making his way towards the Wolverine bench under his own power. Porikos was on the bench for the rest of the first period, and did not return with the team after intermission.
Porikos wanted to sit on the bench for the rest of the game, but after communicating with trainer Rick Bancroft, Michigan coach Mel Pearson decided it would be better for him to remain in the locker room.
“Anytime you have a hit to the head like that you pretty much pull him right out of the game,” Pearson said. “There’s no wiggle room there.”
While the immediate aftermath of the hit hinted at a scary situation, Porikos’ absence from the bench was mostly precautionary. Following further testing throughout the night and the next day, Porikos was cleared to return to practice earlier this week and took part in full-contact practice Thursday afternoon, after which Pearson called him “fine.”
“That’s concussion protocol now, even if you don’t maybe have symptoms or don’t feel that bad any time you get hit to the head,” Pearson said. “I totally agree with it. … There’s a number of things, depending on how they think the hit was, and just more importantly, how the student-athlete reacts and what his symptoms are.”
In 21 games this season, Porikos has scored one goal and accrued five assists. After alternating between a healthy scratch and the active lineup during the Wolverines’ first 26 games, he has carved out a regular role, appearing in nine of the last 13 games and registering three helpers during that span.
Reading between the lines
Porikos’ early exit isn’t expected to impact his place in the Wolverines’ lineup, however. Against Northeastern last Saturday and against the Terriers, he joined sophomore Adam Winborg and freshman Dakota Raabe on Michigan’s listed fourth line, a trio that Pearson believes will play together next Thursday against Notre Dame.
“It should be (the same),” Pearson said Thursday. “We’re always reevaluating our lineup. We had a good series out there, but there’s other guys that look good in practice. There’s been really good competition so far.”
As opposed to the mix-and-match mentality of October, November and December, Pearson has sought stability with his lines during the season’s second half, especially with all four lines being able to contribute offensively. Against Boston, for example, the third line of freshmen Michael Pastujov and Jack Becker and sophomore Nick Pastujov combined for three assists, one goal — Nick’s empty-netter that sealed the victory — and a plus-4 rating.
“They’ve got enough guys who can put the puck in the net when given the opportunity,” Pearson said of his bottom lines. “They’re playing well together as groups, which is important. And they’re fulfilling a role on our team that we need, and that’s providing some energy and hustle.”
Down the stretch in particular, Pearson has constantly stated that the ultimate focus is on his own team, rather than being overly concerned with opponents’ strategy. As such, while the third and fourth lines are often employed as checking lines in order to stop opposing playmakers, that isn’t the case for the Wolverines this year.
This is amplified by the fact that the Fighting Irish are the higher-seeded team, so Michigan no longer is the designated home team like it was in both games last weekend. The driving force behind the Wolverines’ win over Northeastern on Saturday was seniors Tony Calderone and Dexter Dancs and junior Cooper Marody — who persuaded Pearson to let them go up against Adam Gaudette, Dylan Sikura and Nolan Stevens — outdueling the Huskies’ explosive front line. Without last change against Notre Dame, though, specific matchups will play less of a role.
“Sometimes you’re not as concerned with matchups,” Pearson said. “Even more so now that we’re the visiting team … We’re just going to roll some guys out there and make Notre Dame worry about who we’re putting on the ice.”
And with the development of the Pastujovs, Becker and others as sources of offense, Pearson believes he has the personnel to make that possible.
Martin slims down to bulk up Michigan’s defense
The past month has not been kind to Luke Martin.
Against Arizona State on Feb. 23, Martin’s defensive-zone turnover led to a Sun Devil goal within the first minute. This mistake seemed to set the tone for the sophomore defenseman’s recent rough patch, in which he recorded a minus-three rating over five games.
But the Martin that led the Wolverines with a plus-17 rating throughout the first 32 games returned for the Northeast Regional, commanding the back line with strength and authority. Martin was a plus-three for the weekend’s two games, even adding an assist on Saturday.
Martin’s known for his physicality and size — he’s listed at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds — but it was this size that hindered him in part during his earlier slump. A leaner Martin took the ice last weekend, and he was able to rediscover his prior form as a result.
According to Pearson, Martin’s slimmer figure brought a boost of confidence as well, which has led to a stronger overall game.
“He’s dropped his weight a little bit, which allows him to be quicker,” Pearson said. “He’s a big guy, and he’s a pretty good skater for his size, but I think he’s found a weight that’s really helped him. … I thought he played tremendous this weekend. I thought he was outstanding, and part of that is getting his confidence back.”
Martin, like junior Joseph Cecconi and sophomore Griffin Luce, is usually seen as a “stay-at-home,” defense-first blueliner, at least in relation to senior Sam Piazza, junior Nicholas Boka or freshman Quinn Hughes, who are willing and capable of pushing the puck hard up the ice. This has allowed Michigan to optimize its defensive pairings so that they will complement each other’s skill sets.
Martin and Piazza have spent the majority of the last two months playing with each other, and on Thursday, Pearson raved about the rapport the two have developed during that time.
“Him and Sam have done a real nice job playing off of each other,” Pearson said. “And I think that’s the other thing. We were changing pairs, and now he knows who his partner is, and you can see a real chemistry between them.”