After a trek to the Last Frontier where they went 1-0-1 in Anchorage, the Gophers’ men’s hockey team (6-2-1, 3-2-1 in the WCHA) returns to Mariucci this weekend to host the Wisconsin Badgers (1-4-1, 1-2-1) – alma mater to Dany Heatley, Ryan Suter, Tom Gilbert and Jake Dowell – four guys who hopefully someday in the future will don Iron Range red.
In Friday’s paper, I will be doing a profile on Erik Haula, a Wild prospect and last year’s Gophers leading scorer and somebody Don Lucia says has been from “start to finish this year our best player.” Some good stuff in this story, so please check it out.
Lucia said backup goalie Michael Shibrowski got “dinged” in Tuesday’s practice and will miss a few weeks, “so it’s Adam’s net,” as in Wilcox, the reigning WCHA Rookie of the Week. He recorded his second shutout of the season last weekend and is 5-1-1 this season with a conference-best 1.58 goals against average.
Lucia also said Sam Warning remains out with an undisclosed injury. The Badgers report junior forward Mark Zengerle, who had points in Wisconsin’s first five games, is out.
The Gophers are 155-86-20 all-time against the Badgers, 90-27-7 at home. This is the first of four meetings. On Feb. 15, the Gophers play in Madison, then play at the OfficeMax Hockey City Classic at Soldier Field in Chicago on Feb. 17. The Gophers last won a season series over Wisconsin in 2006-07. The Badgers are 14-22-6 against Minnesota under Mike Eaves but 12-13-5 since the start of the 2005-06 season. Wisconsin has split or won its last five season series with Minnesota, splitting the last three.
The Badgers have six Minnesota natives (Tyler Barnes, Spencer Bell, Joe Faust, Joseph LaBate, Kevin Schultze, Eddie Wittchow). The Gophers have one Wisconsin native – Nate Condon, who you can hear from below.
Don Lucia quotes:
On Wilcox: “He’s going to be the guy for awhile now. Shibrowski got dinged a little bit in practice yesterday, so he’s going to be out for a few weeks. So it’s Adam’s net, and he would have probably played both games this weekend, regardless. He’s walked in and I think has given all his teammates and coaches confidence. He hasn’t really let in any leakers so far this year. He’s given us an opportunity to win every game he’s started. He’s a confident kid, and he’s athletic.”
More on Wilcox: “Adam’s had an opportunity to start now some weekends, but that’s based on how he’s played and he earned that opportunity. Had he not played as well, then we may have continued to split for awhile. … With Shibby out, now it’s a foregone conclusion he’s going to be playing every game.”
Feel sorry for Shibrowski?: “I feel sorry that he got hurt yesterday because if he didn’t play this weekend, we would have played him in Vermont, and that’s not going to be available to him. But I think anytime you’re a goalie, you understand the deal. Only one gets to play, and right now, Adam’s done a good job. But that doesn’t mean when Mike gets back that he’s not going to play an important role on this team this year.”
On Sam Warning: “He’s out this weekend, so he’s week by week. More than likely he won’t play next weekend either, and then we’ll have to make a decision whether he’ll be back for those next two weeks or do we just shut him down ‘til Christmas.”
On the Alaska Anchorage weekend: “I liked the way a couple of our younger kids played. I thought Mikey Reilly had his best weekend defensively. I thought Brady Skjei looked like he made another step. So it’s good to see the freshmen play better and grow, and that’s what we have been trying to do with them. Overall when you look at the season, we haven’t given up a lot of shots (22.0 a game). That’s a good place to start. And we have to continue to get better at that because if you can play well defensively, then you’re going to give yourself a chance to win on just about every night. Last week we did a much better job of managing the puck. The weekend before against Mankato on Saturday, we just turned it over too many times in the first period and got ourselves in trouble. We were chasing the scoreboard all night long. This past weekend, we were able to score first both games and play with the lead, and the game becomes easier.”
On Wisconsin: “Well, they’ve only played six games. They’ve had a little bit of a disjointed beginning because of a couple off weekends. They’ve only played two games in the last three weeks. So they’ve had two weeks to prepare, and I’m sure they will be champing at the bit to get rolling here. They’ve played well in this building the last number of years. We’ve had a lot of splits with them, and it seems like they’ve been winning on Friday and we’ve been winning on Saturday. So hopefully we can come out with a great effort on Friday.”
On Nate Condon: “Nate’s got a good skill level. He’s got tremendous speed. He’s got good size. He can play in any situation for us, … he’s responsible defensively. Now, hopefully he can continue to make the next step offensively and be a goal-scoring contributor on a weekly basis. And that’s something we’ve talked to him about. Hopefully he can take that next step and get a few more for us this year. We’re going to need it, especially with Warning out and not having Connor [Reilly] available this year.”
Power play is on fire (28.6 percent). 5-on-5 has been a chore offensively (10th in the conference, I believe). What gives?: “We’ve got to get to some of the hard areas better. We saw some good signs this past weekend – the way we supported the puck, the way we got to the net on some plays. I think we can continue to generate some more from our back line – getting shots through and to the net. If we can continue to manage the puck and take care of it and work on our puck protection down low in the offensive zone, and then have the ability to make those little five-, eight-foot passes in some tight areas, that’s what you have to do in order to generate more offensively. Now, this weekend is going to be hard because they’re playing -- unless they’ve changed the last two weeks – a 1-1-3. So we’re going to see three guys skating backwards all night long, so it’s not like we’re going to get odd-man rushes. We’re not. So you’ve got to try to grind it out and win low-scoring games.”
Why such a good rivalry? “From my standpoint, it’s a healthy rivalry. It’s not … we go to Wisconsin, and you’re not getting too verbally abused. I mean, you’re going to get yelled at, but it’s not the swearing and it’s not over the top. I think rivalries are good when they’re healthy like that. Our fans get a little more excited when Wisconsin comes into town. I think it’s with all the sports being another Big Ten member. Our building will be more alive than usual this weekend and same when we go there.”
On Kyle Rau: “It was his best weekend. He had a little ankle issue that he finally for the first time all year feels 100 percent with, and I think we saw that last weekend. … He had aggravated [the ankle injury] on an almost weekly basis, but I saw a little more hop to his step this weekend.”
On Bjugstad’s play: “He’s got five goals on the year, which translates to 20-plus goals in the season, which is a good college year. But like all the guys, there’s more there. I think there are a few guys. We need a little more production out of [Zach] Budish, [Christian] Isackson. Those guys that are playing in a top-six role, you’ve got to score on a pretty regular basis, especially goals. I think having a healthy Kyle helps. … In this day and age, if you’re going to score goals, you’ve got to get inside the dots. You can play outside the dots all you want, but you’ve got to get some goals in the blue paint, you’ve got to get some deflection goals, you’ve got to get some rebound goals. That’s something we’ve talked to our guys about. You’ve got to get to the hard areas if you’re going to score goals. If you want to stay on the perimeter, you’re not going to score much.”
Nate Condon (from Wausau, Wisc.) quotes:
On playing the Badgers: “If I lose to the Badgers, when I go home, I’ve got to hear about it. If we lose to the Badgers, that’s all I hear about.”
What prompted you to come to Minnesota: “Right away when I was playing in the Elite League, coach Lucia talked to me first. … Right through the recruiting process, he was pretty good to me. He was up front and honest about what he wanted out of me and what I’d get here at Minnesota, and then when I came here on my official visit, it’s a great school. I like it here. I really like the business school they have here, so it was just a great school for me.”
On his play: “I just kind of know more what’s expected out of me and what I can do offensively. Playing with Haula right now. Obviously he’s a very offensive player.”
Why’s 5-on-5 been an issue? “We’ve have been sitting back a little bit, a lot of dumps and we’re not controlling the puck like I think we can. We’ve just got to get up and get on them and make offensive-zone plays where you can make quick-strike plays at the net.”
More on Wisconsin: “My family had season tickets to football and hockey. … Most people would say the North Dakota rivalry is the biggest for us, but for me, it’s probably Wisconsin just because it’s my home state, it’s who I want to play against, it’s who I want to beat. There’s no more fun than beating Wisconsin for me.”
Adam Wilcox quotes:
On playing Wisconsin: “I’m pumped. I’ve been looking forward to this since the summer. It’s one of those weekends that you mark on the calendar. It’s a homestand weekend, so I’m more than excited for it.”
On Rookie of the Week: “It’s a big accomplishment, especially this early. It’s nice to get, but you just have to look at it for a little bit and then kind of forget about it because it’s a matter of what you do in the end. As a team, we’ve got to get four points this weekend.”
On relationship with Shibrowski: “He’s an awesome guy. He’s one of the nicest guys on the team. Me and him have a great relationship. We know it’s just a healthy competition, especially at this level. There’s always going to be competition, so me and him, we’re good. There’s never any problems. And he’s a really nice kid.”
Feel like defense improved from Mankato? “The defense had a great weekend. They shut down a lot of 2-on-1’s, odd-man rushes, and the biggest thing that I saw is they blocked a lot of shots, especially in the first game. I think they had about 10-20 blocked shots before I even got to five shots on myself.”
The Gophers Hockey Blue Line Club is holding a luncheon that will feature former Gophers Keith Ballard and Paul Martin on Friday at O’Gara’s in St. Paul at 11:30 a.m. It’s open to the public but reservations are preferred by calling 612-625-2886. Cost is $25.
By the way, the next one is scheduled Jan. 17 at Gabe’s by the Park and features Wild GM Chuck Fletcher.
Also, in Wild news, 2011 second-round pick Mario Lucia, Don's son who broke his leg before Notre Dame's season, is expected to return for the Nov. 23 series against North Dakota. The Fighting Irish forward and Fairbanks, Alaska, native is still a world junior hopeful for the U.S.