The seniors were chatting at the back of the bus.
Last weekend, the flight to State College didn’t go exactly as planned. It got redirected to Harrisburg, Penn., and from there the Michigan hockey team had to bus two hours to its rightful destination of State College.
While the Wolverines were en route, the seniors all sat together in the last rows and talked about their play. Defensively, they had things locked down. Offensively, they had to find a spark.
“We’re like ‘Oh, all we need is just kind of start clicking on offense, and we’ll start taking off,’ ” senior forward Nick Pastujov said.
Eleven goals were scored over two games against Penn State — leading to a 6-0 win Friday, and a 4-4 tie and double-overtime win Saturday. Seniors accounted for four of those goals. They had pieced it together. In addition to scoring, they accounted for five assists. The seniors had ignited the offense.
“Some of the younger guys are still overperforming and playing really well,” senior forward Will Lockwood said. “But it’s nice to see some of the leadership from some older guys step in and you know, get some credit on this.”
It was a crucial component the team felt had been missing all year.
After the onslaught of goals, the seniors looked at each other and said: “Hey, we kind of called it.”
It was a big turnaround from the early scoring struggles Michigan faced in the first half of the year. But in the second half the team — seniors in particular — have come with a vengeance.
Entering the season, there were certain expectations for the upperclassmen. Their leadership role wasn’t meant to be exclusively vocal. They needed to demonstrate it in their play too. And while they seemingly succeeded in the former, the latter was a glaring issue. They just couldn’t convert.
“I think it’s good that we’re finally starting to click and put up points,” Pastujov said on the seniors. “… It’s huge that once we started clicking offensively, especially just the way that Penn State (and) Notre Dame played where if we just keep rolling over on them in their own zone, they just can’t sustain the same way that we can.”
It was a dominant performance that led the way to more than just wins.
For the upperclassmen to take charge, pave a lead and ultimately win the game, it showed the younger players the template for what the Wolverines are capable of doing. Sometimes, all it takes is seeing that it’s possible before believing that it can be done on a consistent basis.
“I think with us to have that hot start I think it did lead into like, other guys because even the second game, like Granowicz was scoring, Beecher scoring,” Pastujov said on seniors leading by example. “Lot of these young guys kind of get the confidence that next game, where, ‘Yeah, they are Penn State. Yeah, they are sixth, but yeah, we can roll over on them. We can also play with them and kind of dominate them.’
“So I think that’s what helped us that second game, kind of stay in the game and keep that confidence up where no one was ever really doubting whether we’d come away with the win.”
It was senior forward Jake Slaker that opened the floodgates with a snipe from a left-side rush Friday. Pastujov followed suit. And then the younger players took charge — much to the upperclassmen’s relief.
The seniors aren’t necessarily burdened by the stigma that they should be scoring, but the assumption can bear down on them at times.
“Even as an older guy, where you kind of do feel that weight,” Lockwood said. “And that pressure of okay we got to be the ones that score. Just having those guys score is huge. Seeing that confidence that they get from it.”
It’s lead by example, and when the younger players do find success, it’s just as exciting for the seniors as it is to them. For the upperclassmen, it was only a couple years ago that they were in those shoes.
“I remember when I was younger and I had my upperclassmen who had my back through tough times and then were there for me and excited for me when I had success,” Lockwood said. “And now I can flip roles and be the guy who is excited for another guy like Granowicz.”
Added Slaker: “Even thinking back to my sophomore year, seeing (Cooper Marody) and (Tony Calderone) and (Dexter Dancs), just consistently producing, gave you confidence that like, not necessarily, even if I don’t score they’ll score, but it’s like, ‘We can do it you know like they’re a team that we can be like, they can be beat pretty much,’ and so that’s huge to see as a young guy like coming up.”
Marody, Calderone and Dancs were the key players that manufactured a late-season run to the Frozen Four two years ago. What once was a showcase to the young Slaker, Lockwood, Pastujov and other then-underclassmen, is now a blueprint they’re aiming to follow.
In what has thus far been a tumultuous season for the Wolverines, their veteran core stepping up to contribute offense doesn’t only set an example for the younger players, but it can potentially set the stage for a second-half run. And through four games, that certainly seems to be the case.