After Michigan’s title-clinching win over Miami (Ohio) Saturday, freshman Matt Rust stood by the team bus with a black and blue CCHA Champions hat on his head.
It had been a bruising weekend for the injured freshman, and he admitted that if it had been a regular-season series, he might have been watching the games in street clothes.
After fracturing his fibula, a non-weight-bearing bone in his leg, at practice March 12, Rust missed the Wolverines’ CCHA quarterfinal series against Nebraska-Omaha. He resumed skating at practice last Wednesday, just seven days after suffering the injury.
“There is a lot of pain there,” Rust said. “But (Detroit Red Wing) Chris Chelios had the same type of injury and he was able to play after a week, too.”
The freshman center had just two days to get into game shape before the Wolverines’ CCHA semifinal game against Northern Michigan. Michigan coach Red Berenson said Rust limped through the week and wasn’t very good when he got back onto his skates. But after Friday’s morning skate, Rust told the coaches he was ready to play.
Berenson had kept Rust in a maroon jersey during practice – the color reserved for scratches. Though Rust told Berenson Wednesday that he felt ready to play Friday, Berenson cautioned the forward to keep his injury status day-to-day.
” ‘I don’t want you to play because your girlfriend is coming to the game,’ ” Berenson said, recalling his conversation with Rust. ” ‘You have to play because you think you can help your team win. Otherwise, tell me you’re not playing, and I’m okay with that.’ “
In his first game back, Rust was matched up against Northern Michigan freshman Mark Olver, a center who has as many goals (21) as Rust has points this season.
But against the Wildcats, Rust showed few outward signs of the fracture that led Michigan trainer Rick Bancroft to make a custom brace just so the freshman could skate. Rust won 11 of 20 draws and Berenson praised his comeback after Friday’s 6-4 win.
Rust said his leg was sore, especially after falling down during his first shift, but the pain lessened as the game continued.
On Saturday, he faced Miami freshman standout Carter Camper, whose 38 points this season trail only the point totals of star duo Ryan Jones and Justin Mercier. But before Camper and the RedHawks could make a mark on the scoreboard, Rust set up the Wolverines’ first goal. Midway through the second period, Rust had the puck above the right circle and passed it to freshman Aaron Palushaj, who charged the crease and tapped a one-timer past Miami goalie Jeff Zatkoff.
“To be honest with you, I was going to try and beat him wide,” Rust said. “But my leg’s a little banged up, so the (Miami) guy pulled up and I saw Palushaj driving the net and I just tried to find him.”
Rust’s return to the lineup also boosted the Michigan penalty-killing unit.
Though the Wolverines took fewer penalties than in past weekends, Rust and the shorthanded Wolverines held off a brutal offensive assault from the RedHawks in the second period and allowed just one power-play goal all weekend – Miami’s only tally with 39 seconds left in the game.
“He could hardly walk this morning, but he came up to me and said, ‘I want to play again. I can get the job done,’ ” Berenson said Saturday. “And that’s why we’re sitting here, just because of the character of these (guys).”