Six minutes into the No. 4 Michigan hockey team’s exhibition match against Waterloo, Nick Pastujov found daylight.

In the middle of a five-on-three advantage, the junior forward positioned himself in the slot, corralled a pass from junior wing Jake Slaker and slapped in his second goal in as many games into the bottom right corner of the net.

“It’s huge because it gets the monkey off your back,” Pastujov said. “When you finish the year so strong and you work so hard during the summer and the spring, getting that first goal in the first real game feels amazing. It could have easily just not gone in, but it’s nice to get that confidence rolling in the game.”

For Pastujov, a fast start like this is a new and welcome sight. Points were few and far between for him as a freshman, tallying one goal and two assists. To start his sophomore season, Pastujov had to deal with nagging injuries, cutting into his playing time and development. But just as the Wolverines caught fire in the second half of last season, Pastujov found a spark. In the NCAA Tournament, he scored a goal in a 6-3 win over Boston University and notched an assist in Michigan’s semifinal loss to Notre Dame, cementing himself in the Wolverines’ depth chart as one of Michigan’s key wings.

With 15 points under his belt, Pastujov found much of his success that year in good, old-fashioned five-on-five hockey.

“I think it was definitely after Christmas when the team and I got into that same grove and started winning a bunch of games in a row,” Pastujov said. “I think we were also big because pretty much all of the points we got were on even-strength goals. I think those are important in a game that might not have as many penalties.”

That experience has helped him transition to a more prominant presence on the ice this season as a member of the special teams unit. Against Waterloo, Pastujov scored early in the first period after two canceling penalities resulted in four-on-four hockey. A day earlier against Vermont, he notched a game-tying, power play goal at 10:18 in the first period.

Beyond producing on the ice, though, perhaps the biggest leap that Pastujov has made was mental rather than physical.

“I think he finally got some confidence,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “And what comes first? Confidence and then you have a good game? Or do you have a good game and build some confidence off that? I think he had good games and he got some confidence and that just went right into his finish last year.”

That question is now a season-long one rather than a game-by-game one. Pastujov got his foot in the door and now has a chance to hold it open as a key part of Michigan’s roster.

Will the forward find confidence from his start and continue his level of play, or will he let his play dictate his level of confidence? Either way, he plans to use his determination as the main indicator of his season over anything else.

“I want to get faster and I want to get more competitive,” Pastujov said. “I want to really go into battles and win every single one-on-one. I don’t want to lose any battles. I don’t want to lose any faceoff. I just want to bring in a new level of speed in my game that brings us to the next level.”

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