As the Gophers' captain, Zach Budish is a hands-on guy, the type who works with younger players in practice to help them refine their hockey skills. The junior winger also understands the need to continue evolving himself, which is why he sought advice from assistant coach Grant Potulny in December.
Budish wasn't happy with the way he played in the first half of the season, when he recorded five goals and eight assists. "I needed to get better,'' Budish said. "The biggest thing was for me to be more consistent. I needed to make sure I was ready to go every night, getting pucks to the net and using my size [6-3, 214] and strength to my advantage and to help my teammates.''
After taking up that challenge himself, Budish has set the same goal for his team. The Gophers' aim over the final six regular-season games is to maintain their focus and drive through both games of every series -- they have split the past three -- beginning this weekend against Minnesota Duluth.
With the next four games at Mariucci Arena, Budish said players remain confident they can rise from their current fourth-place tie in the tightly packed WCHA standings. The Gophers sit only three points behind first-place St. Cloud State -- but also are only three points ahead of seventh-place Denver. Budish, who has steadied his game since his discussion with Potulny, knows the only way for the Gophers to move up is to find similar consistency as a group.
"It seems like we play a really solid game one night, and the next we drop off," said Budish, the Gophers' sixth-leading scorer with 10 goals and 16 assists. "We've had good weeks of practice leading up to Friday games, and we've won the last couple of Fridays. On Saturdays, maybe we didn't have the same intensity or preparation during the day. ... We have to make sure that focus and intensity is there every day.''
Budish views himself as integral to that effort. He was appointed assistant captain last season, a year after his Gophers career was interrupted by a moped accident. His injured knee required surgery, and he missed nearly all of the 2010-11 season -- the second time in three seasons he was sidelined by a significant knee injury.
That year, Budish said, he had begun asserting himself as a leader before he was injured. Still, he was humbled and a little surprised to be given the 'A' upon his return. His teammates said Budish fits the role perfectly, from his willingness to share his knowledge to his pregame speeches with just the right inspirational notes.
"He's about as good as you can get as a captain,'' junior defenseman Jake Parenteau said. "He's close with everyone on the team. He's helpful with everything, and he's there for everyone. You can tell how passionate he is about wearing the 'M'.''
That all started when Budish began attending Gophers games as a kid, coming to a few each season with a friend whose family had tickets. He wore the jersey of another Gophers captain -- Casey Hankinson -- and appreciated at a young age what it meant to be a leader among his peers.
Gophers coach Don Lucia has said that in the current era of college hockey, with star players often leaving early to turn pro, championships are won by those who play for the logo on the front of the jersey rather than the name on the back. He noted that Budish epitomizes that kind of player on a team full of them. Still, Lucia said, Budish's conscientiousness may have hampered him early in the season.
When his first 17 games fell short of his standards, Budish sought advice and made adjustments. "Early in the year, he maybe put a little too much pressure on himself as captain," Lucia said. "It affected his game a little bit. Since Christmastime, he seems to be moving better, scoring more and having a much bigger impact day in and day out. He has really improved as the year has gone by.''
This is the first time in several years that the Budish, a second-round pick of Nashville's in the 2009 NHL draft, has been fully healthy in back-to-back seasons. And he said he feels more comfortable in his role every day. Budish won't rest, though, until the Gophers begin operating in a consistently high gear.
"Fourth place in the league isn't where we want to be,'' he said. "We've got to find a way to get wins every night.''