Assists aren’t flashy.
Aaron Palushaj knows that.
And when Yost Ice Arena is full of fans, setting up plays is what the freshman and team assists leader does to help Michigan win.
But on weekdays, he’s one of the last off the ice after practice. Palushaj and his roommate, first-line forward Max Pacioretty, alternate taking shots against backup goalie Bryan Hogan.
The two finally leave, almost a half hour after the rest of the team. Palushaj laughs when asked why they stay out so long, practicing unconventional stick moves and crazy plays.
He brings up Detroit Red Wings forward Pavel Datsyuk’s breakaway, one-legged goal against former Wolverine and Dallas Stars goalie Marty Turco in 2003 that prompted the announcer to exclaim, “You do that in practice, but to do that in a game!”
That goal epitomizes the way Palushaj wants to play – with an innovative style that’s a little flashy.
“(Datsyuk) said after the game he works on that in practice all the time,” Palushaj said. “When it comes down to the game, it’s just like a practice for him – especially when they’re up by a couple goals, he’s trying the fancy, creative stuff he does in practice. So that’s why we stay out there.”
Palushaj has primarily been responsible for setting up goals on the power play and hasn’t had many opportunities to showcase his goal-scoring creativity – but his puck control and quick moves have still helped the freshman leap to third place on Michigan’s points list this season, behind seniors Kevin Porter and Chad Kolarik.
Palushaj’s puck smarts helped Michigan score its first goal against Michigan State Saturday, and his technique was noticed by linemate Carl Hagelin.
Hagelin said the goal was possible because Palushaj gave Kolarik more time to see the puck before passing it to the senior forward, who dumped it to Pacioretty for the goal.
“He’s good at holding onto the puck that extra second to create room for the other players,” Hagelin said. “He just creates plays in the neutral zone, doing breakouts.”
Hagelin called Palushaj the playmaker of the all-freshman line. Pacioretty agreed, comparing Palushaj’s role on the second line to that of Kolarik or Porter on the first line.
After practice, Palushaj goes back to his West Quad dorm room and watches NHL highlights. Pacioretty and Palushaj said their favorite player to watch together is Alexei Kovalev, the Montreal Canadiens right winger known for his original stickhandling skills. Palushaj learns from Kovalev’s stickwork and one-on-one, power-play moves – observations that have paid off for Palushaj, who is third on the team in power-play points with 13 (one goal and 12 assists).
“He stays out after practice and fools around with the puck, like some of those things, there,” said associate head coach Mel Pearson, watching as Palushaj skated around the crease, made a quick stick move and flipped the puck over Hogan’s shoulder. “He has a lot of nuances for a creative, offensive player, the way he protects the puck and the way he moves his body.”
Pearson compared Palushaj’s creativity in practice to that of former Wolverine Mike Legg, who is best known for his highlight-reel goal in Michigan’s 6-5 win against Minnesota in the 1996 NCAA Tournament Western Regional.
Legg bent over behind the net, picked up the puck with the blade of his stick and flung it into the net – a score that was named Goal of the Year and immortalized Legg’s stick in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“(Legg) used to stay out after practice and then, eventually, we saw it in the game when he had the lacrosse-style goal,” Pearson said. “Aaron’s not too far away from a Mike Legg. He’s just being a rink rat.”
Pearson gestured to the ice, where Palushaj was just starting to take the puck from center ice.