Aaron Palushaj knows he’s in the spotlight.
Last season, Palushaj played strong behind the scenes, tallying 34 assists in his freshman campaign. He was overshadowed by Kevin Porter’s Hobey Baker award-winning season and freshman Max Pacioretty’s dominating presence.
But now, as he steps up to play on the Wolverines’ top line, Palushaj feels more pressure to put the puck in the net.
In the season’s first weekend, it didn’t seem hard for the sophomore forward, who tallied two goals in Saturday’s 5-3 win over St. Lawrence, including the game-winner.
The Wolverines had a solid 2-0 lead after two periods, but in a back-and-forth third period, the Saints tied the game with five minutes to go.
The Northville native flew up the ice, beat a Saints defensemen low and, as he fell forward toward the goalie, flicked the puck into the net. The electric Yost Ice Arena crowd erupted as the red light flashed.
“When I picked it up at center ice, I just had some speed and I put it under (the defenseman’s) stick,” Palushaj said. “I was going to take him wide, but he just stepped up, so I just put it back through his legs. He tried to trip me, so I used a bit of my soccer skills and picked it back up with my stick. Then I somehow just put it in the net.”
Though Palushaj made his play sound ordinary, it looked extraordinary.
“(He) made that unbelievable individual move that was the difference in the game,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said.
Palushaj’s linemate, sophomore Matt Rust, called the goal “impressive” and worthy of ESPN’s daily highlights.
The goal put Michigan ahead for good after a see-saw third period with six goals.
Junior forward Brian Lebler tacked on a power-play goal with 8.9 seconds left in the game to seal the victory. The tally ended Michigan’s 0-for-17 weekend drought on the man-advantage.
Though they struggled on the power play, Palushaj and the Wolverines found success at even strength.
Less than five minutes into the second period, Palushaj scored his first goal of the season on a tip-in shot from Rust.
Sophomore forward Carl Hagelin, Palushaj and Rust make up Michigan’s top line — for now. In the first two weeks of the season, Berenson has switched up lines, trying to find the best on-ice chemistry.
He already knew this trio had it.
“Rust’s line played a little more together last year than our other lines, and you can see that,” Berenson said.
Last year, Hagelin, Palushaj and Rust were the second line for most of the season, so they are very familiar with one another’s play. This season, though, brings extremely high expectations as they try to fill the void left by Kevin Porter and Chad Kolarik, who graduated, and Pacioretty, who left for pro hockey. Porter and Kolarik combined for 63 goals last year alone.
“We feel like we have to step into the role where we produce more,” Rust said.
For Palushaj, that translates to highlight-reel worthy goals instead of perfect assists. And without Michigan’s defensive anchor, it will need more of them.
Senior captain Mark Mitera suffered a serious knee injury in the final minute of the first period Friday night. Mitera and St. Lawrence junior forward Augie DiMarzo collided and lay on the ice entangled for a moment. Two teammates helped a limping Mitera back to the Michigan bench.
Mitera did not return after the first intermission, and junior alternate captain Chris Summers, who had been playing left wing all preseason, moved back to the blue line, where he played most of the past two seasons. Team officials said Mitera will be out for an extended period of time, and surgery is a distinct possibility.
Michigan needed Palushaj and the rest of the top line more than ever, as they picked up the team offensively after a whirlwind weekend for the defensemen.
“Obviously, it was a big loss, a big hit to our team,” Summers said. “We needed to come together this weekend more now than ever. … As a team, we won this weekend.”