Michael Pastujov smirked.
“I mean, it’s (Michigan) State week,” he said. “Everybody’s pretty fired up. Everybody’s ready.”
When asked about the upcoming weekend series, the junior forward’s response was direct and to the point. Everyone was onboard. Everyone was buying into the vision.
Just like Pastujov’s answer, Michigan coach Mel Pearson’s message to the team this week sung the same tune.
Pearson emphasized the importance of taking the schedule one game at a time and stressed that the Wolverines’ season wasn’t in danger of needing to be turned around. It’s still early in the season, and the Michigan hockey team is building the foundation of its play style.
“It’s obviously very important,” Pearson said. “You can’t keep giving points away if we’d like to finish as high as we want to. Especially home games.”
And there are certainly areas where the team could stand to improve.
In the last two weeks, 12 conference points have been within Michigan’s grasp. It’s only managed to eke one point out from its last four games — good enough for second-to-last place in the conference.
It’s no secret that as of late, the Wolverines’ offense has been struggling considerably. Through its last five games, Michigan has found the back of the net just seven times.
Despite these setbacks, Pearson preached a message of positivity to his team this week during practice.
“The mood has been good,” Pearson said. “The intensity has been really good in practice, which is a positive. There’s so many games left, so it’s not like football where if you lose one game it can really sidetrack you. You have to stay upbeat and positive and really trust in the players around you.”
The Wolverines’ absence on the scoresheet is not the only thing that’s provided fuel in the team’s preparation for the upcoming games against the Spartans — there’s an almost-century long rivalry, too.
For players like senior forward Will Lockwood — someone who’s been a Michigan fan his entire life — the history between the two schools is long and grinding. On the other side of the spectrum are Wolverines like Pastujov, born and raised in Florida, completely unaware of the vying teams.
“Until I got here, I didn’t really think about it much,” Pastujov said. “Then once you get here, you learn the history of it. What it means to everybody here and what it means to the fans. It’s hard not to get pretty deep into it.”
In Pastujov’s freshman year when Michigan State came to play at Yost, Michigan blanked the Spartans, 4-0. Then — the next day — it lost, 5-0, at Munn Ice Arena. Every year, no matter how either team is fareing, the series is either school’s for the taking.
With the Wolverines having only one conference point, there’s a lot at stake this weekend.
“At the end of the day it’s all about Big Ten play,” Pastujov said. “And right now, we’re on a four-game skid in Big Ten. There’s going to be six huge points this week. I guess that’s priority one, but the rivalry, it’s definitely still in our heads.”
The energy boost provided by such a big rivalry is exactly what Michigan needs. Yes, it’s still early in the season. And yes, its last five games have been close, but if this team wants to achieve the goals it set, there has to be a momentum swing at some point.
Beyond fierce competitiveness, this series offers players who’ve been struggling — like sophomore forward Jimmy Lambert — a shot at redemption.
Twice last Friday, Lambert had the game on his stick and failed to convert. The frustration was written all over his face and mirrored on his teammates’, too.
This weekend, he has the chance to prove his talent, and maybe provide the spark the Wolverines’ offense has been desperately searching for the past five games.
Because, yes, it’s rivalry weekend. But for a team still trying to find its footing in the Big Ten, it’s about so much more than history.
“You don’t come to Michigan just to play in big games,” Lambert said. “You come to win in big games.”