Entering Saturday’s game against Minnesota, the Michigan hockey team had a massive hole in its lineup. A Kent Johnson-sized hole, to be exact.
It just so happened that Michael Pastujov fit it perfectly.
The fifth-year senior forward used his offensive awareness and puck handling to push the Wolverines past Minnesota. On his way to a natural hat trick — the first of his career — Pastujov’s experience stood out in one of Michigan’s most dominant wins of the season.
“(Pastujov) brings some senior leadership, that veteran presence on a line” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “… Kent’s a heck of a hockey player and we missed him, but tonight’s next man up.”
After freshman forward Mark Estapa tied the game in the first, Pastujov scored two goals before the period ended and added the third a few minutes into the second.
Handling the puck with ease gave Pastujov an edge over the Golden Gophers, and Pastujov showed that on his third goal. After stripping Minnesota defenseman Brock Faber of the puck and sprinting into the offensive zone, Pastujov used a nifty toe drag to beat defenseman Ben Brinkman and pulled the puck through his own legs. Then he buried the puck far side without thinking twice.
Skills like that didn’t seem likely without Johnson in the lineup, but Pastujov brought the same energy and handles. Not only did he possess the technical skills to pull off the play, but his experience told him when to time it to catch his opponent off-guard.
But it wasn’t just Pastujov’s play with the puck on his stick that stirred Michigan’s offense. He stayed in position for passes despite attempts by Minnesota’s defensemen to shut him down. With a skilled puck mover like sophomore forward Matty Beniers on his line, Pastujov served as an outlet much like Johnson normally does. The result? Shot after shot peppered the Golden Gophers’ goaltender Jack LaFontaine.
Adding a physicality to the top line, Pastujov also diversified how those abundant shots could reach the back of the net. He parked himself in front on play after play, and Minnesota’s defense struggled to clear the crease. That led to Pastujov’s second goal, after he pulled in a rebound from sophomore defenseman Steve Holtz and lifted it over LaFontaine.
“We really had an emphasis on going in front of the net,” Pastujov said. “And for me, it’s just creating space, making sure I’m not tied up with anybody in front, just looking for loose pucks, and one was right there for me.”
And perhaps his most crucial addition was a tendency to hold the puck for longer and make the correct outlet pass. On Friday, the Wolverines tried to force plays by passing early and often. Turnovers gave Minnesota dangerous cracks at the net and put Michigan behind early.
Instead of that, Pastujov scanned the ice and looked for passing lanes where Minnesota couldn’t grab the puck and force an odd-man rush. Patience and timing from Pastujov — crafted over five seasons with the Wolverines — minimized the juicy scoring opportunities the Golden Gophers could create.
That played a huge role in Michigan’s performance, as it bought time for defensemen to recover. Instead of dashing into their defensive zone to shut down the Golden Gophers’ rushes, they could size up the attackers and win one-on-one battles.
Pastujov can’t replace Johnson, but his scintillating performance showed that the Wolverines’ depth can carry them to lopsided wins. Michigan is more than a collection of top-end prospects. Leaning on veterans like Pastujov rounds out the Wolverines’ performance.
Pearson put it simply:
“We have to be that team that doesn’t rely on one or two guys,” Pearson said. “When we’ve got everybody going like that, we’re pretty good.”