A few days before the Gophers hockey team took its Christmas break, coach Don Lucia pulled Nate Condon aside for a talk. The junior forward had a mere three goals then, well below what his team needed from him.
Lucia delivered his message forcefully, telling Condon he expected more. And Condon, inspired to find his best self, has responded just as forcefully. Since their discussion, Condon has scored six goals in seven games and assisted on four others to help the top-ranked Gophers extend their undefeated streak to 10 games.
The surge began just before Condon moved from left wing to center on a line with Sam Warning and Zach Budish. That trio -- together now for five games since Erik Haula's hand injury on Dec. 30 -- accounted for four goals in last weekend's victory and tie against North Dakota. Condon finished the series with five points and earned WCHA offensive player of the week honors, as well as a bushel of praise from Lucia.
Haula had a solid weekend, too, playing wing alongside center Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau. As Haula heals, Lucia isn't sure how those top two lines might change. He anticipates keeping them intact for this weekend's series against Minnesota State Mankato, which Condon hopes will keep him on a roll.
"Nothing's been different," said Condon, the Gophers' fourth-leading scorer with nine goals and 14 assists. "I'm finally getting some space and getting some shots to go in here and there. Things are just clicking for me right now.''
Lucia said Condon always has been a hard worker in practice. That hasn't consistently translated to being a high-impact player, though the coach noted Condon's speed gives him the ability to be a game-changer.
Since returning from the break, Lucia said Condon has elevated his level of play, contributing to the scoring depth the Gophers will need to stay atop the highly competitive WCHA.
"A big reason why we've taken off a little better offensively is the play of Nate," Lucia said. "There was more there, and I think he knew it. He seems to be a little different player than he was in the first half [of the season].
"He was one of the guys we highlighted. If we were going to have a good second half, he had to have a good second half. Nate is the kind of guy who might not score every night, but he should be on the scoreboard in some fashion every weekend.''
Condon started the season at left wing and first shifted to center for a series at Colorado College, the last games before the break. When the season resumed, he moved to right wing with Bjugstad and Rau until Haula was sidelined with the injury.
Condon then replaced Haula between Warning and Budish, and the group's complementary assets meshed quickly. He had played center growing up and enjoyed using his speed to make plays. Working with the quick Warning and the strong, gritty Budish, the three created some excellent scoring opportunities against North Dakota, including the goal that gave the Gophers the tie in Saturday's game.
Haula finished the series with a goal and two assists. Lucia expects him to be fully healed in time for a series at St. Cloud State on Feb. 8-9, and Haula said he wants to return to center when able. He is likely to remain at wing this weekend.
Condon's fine play at center, Lucia said, opens up lots of possibilities. After this weekend, the Gophers have a bye week, giving him time to consider several combinations. For the time being, he's happy with the status quo.
"The key for us is, can Condon's line play the way they did last weekend?" Lucia said. "You have to have other guys contribute night in and night out."