There are few things that resonate more with an athlete than being benched.
It is a cut and dried message, forcing the player to do some self-reflecting while becoming an observer to the game. And it is one that Michigan coach Mel Pearson recently delivered to sophomore forward Michael Pastujov.
Pastujov got off to a quick start this season, recording three points through the first four games. He started the season against Vermont, featured on the top line alongside sophomore Josh Norris and junior Will Lockwood –– perhaps the two most dynamic goal scorers on the roster. Needless to say, he was expected to be a key contributor for the Michigan hockey team throughout the year.
Then, from Oct. 7 to Dec. 1, Pastujov recorded just one point, missed three games due to injury, was moved off the top line and moved onto a line alongside his brother, junior Nick Pastujov. After that stretch, though, it seemed that he turned a corner when he rattled off a four-game point streak heading into the outdoor game on Jan. 5 against Notre Dame.
But just six days later when the team traveled to Columbus to face off against Ohio State, Pastujov did not appear in either game of the series.
Pearson was asked about Pastujov’s status after the 4-2 loss that Saturday.
“Yeah, he’s just a healthy scratch,” Pearson said. “He’s got to continue to work in practice and work harder to be able to compete in games like this. I know he can, but he’s just got to have some self-reflection on his game and where he’s at and how hard he wants to play.”
From the top line to the sideline –– Pearson gave the sophomore a wake-up call in hopes of having Pastujov perform to his fullest potential.
He made his return on Jan. 24 against Penn State. And in his first game back on the ice, a reinvigorated Pastujov recorded an assist in a 5-1 victory. In the ensuing series split against Minnesota, he poured in three goals. He followed up that weekend with two goals against Michigan State, contributing to the Wolverines’ first series sweep in Big Ten play.
“Pucks are finding me right now,” Pastujov said after last Friday’s 5-3 win against Michigan State. “It feels good. It’s nice when you’re playing with a guy like (Jake) Slaker and Jimmy (Lambert). It comes easy.”
Added Pearson: “We sat him out a while ago. He came in and we had a good talk with the staff and Mike about what direction his game was headed, and he had to make some changes. First and foremost, it just started with nothing with the puck, it’s just without it. Working harder. Competing harder. Usually, when you do that, things start to turn your way, and I think that’s what happened.
“He’s always been a skilled player, but you have to have more to your game than just being skilled … He took that conversation, he didn’t sulk, he didn’t — he just went and started playing better.”
It seems Pearson’s message resonated with Pastujov. The Wolverines can ill afford to have the talented forward’s offensive production disappear once more. Pastujov’s point total is now up to 14, and with only four games separating Michigan from the Big Ten tournament, his reemergence is coming at the right time.