In the Michigan hockey team’s season-opening exhibition game, a Wolverines’ 4-1 win over the U.S. National Team Development Program, sophomore forward Matt Rust tallied two goals.
It was an inconsequential game — except that the opposing coach, Ron Rolston, is also Team USA’s coach for the World Junior Championship. He will be coaching Rust, and sophomore Aaron Palushaj, who were both named to the National Junior Team Tuesday in the tournament.
“I won’t hold that against him in the tournament,” joked Rolston, recalling the loss, “because we’re going to need him.”
The team, made up of the country’s top players under the age of 20, will play in Ottawa from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 as a part of a 10-country field.
Rust, a former USNTDP player, was also part of Team USA’s disappointing fourth-place finish last year. It will be Palushaj’s first time competing for Team USA. Just two other CCHA players, both Notre Dame defensemen, were selected to the team.
But Rust’s pair of goals against Rolston’s team earlier this season was anything but indicative of how the sophomore has played thus far. He’s lit the lamp in just one regular-season game this season, a two-goal effort against Northern Michigan in the first weekend of CCHA play. And in 12 games since then, Rust has just one assist.
What isn’t working for the sophomore who, at this point last year, already had five goals and five assists while centering the second line?
“I think a little bit of everything,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “I think a little bit of thinking about it too much, a little bit of trying to be too cute, worried too much about scoring.”
As a result, Berenson moved sophomore forward Carl Hagelin back alongside Rust a week ago to rekindle the strong chemistry they had on the second line last year, and to boost Rust’s confidence.
“Now he’s worried about playing well defensively and working hard as a penalty killer,” Berenson said. “And now he’s getting more chances than he did when he was worried about scoring.”
Rust has always been a two-way player, as opposed to a purely offensive center like first-liner Louie Caporusso. The Bloomfield Hills native excels because of his versatility, a characteristic Rolston really likes about the sophomore.
And Rolston is hoping Rust’s defensive presence and his previous experience will facilitate his emergence as a leader for Team USA, especially with the team hoping to make a gold-medal run after it collapsed in its final two games against Canada and Russia last year.
“That’s something I can bring to this team, just trying to keep the guys on task and having that experience knowing how difficult the tournament really is,” Rust said.
But his struggles on offense are still a concern for Rust, who thinks the break for the tournament can only help.
“I think it’ll help me get out of my slump,” Rust said. “Slumps are mostly mental stuff, so hopefully this change of pace will freshen my mind, give me a fresh start coming back.”
Berenson has always encouraged his players to play in the tournament, even though it forces them to miss the Great Lakes Invitational. But at the same time, he doesn’t necessarily expect a reinvigorated Rust to return in January because the tournament takes a significant physical and mental toll.
“He does well here, and I think if he takes what he does here he’ll be an effective player there, but rarely do I get a better player back,” Berenson said.
The results of the World Junior Championship won’t effect the Wolverines. But if Rust can somehow revitalize his offense in Ottawa, Michigan may return with a much deeper and more consistent scoring unit the second half of the season.