Moments after beating Canada in the semifinals of the world junior championships in Ufa, Russia on Thursday, Gophers defenseman Mike Reilly texted back and forth with buddy Jake Gardiner, the former Minnetonka High star that plays for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In 2010, Gardiner represented the United States and won gold with fellow Minnesotans Derek Stepan, Danny Kristo, Jordan Schroeder and Mike Lee in Saskatchewan.
“We talked quite a bit the other night and Jake says it was one of the best moments of his life to win, so that’s what I’m shooting for – to bring back a gold,” said Reilly, who hails from Chanhassen, played at Holy Angels and won a BCHL title with Penticton last year.
Reilly and Mario Lucia, the son of Gophers coach Don Lucia, are the two Minnesotans wearing red, white and blue (Lucia was born in Alaska but moved to Minnesota in kindergarten). The team is coached by three Minnesotans – head coach Phil Housley and assistants Mark Osiecki and Grant Potulny.
They are going for the Americans’ third-ever gold medal in the Under-20 world championships Saturday (7 a.m. CT; can be watched on NHL Network and NHL.com) against Sweden.
I talked with Reilly, Lucia and Potulny late last night from Russia.
“You watched [the U.S. win gold] on TV twice and think, ‘Wow, what a great day to be an American. Now getting an opportunity is obviously very exciting. We’re halfway home,” said Potulny, a Gophers’ assistant. “You almost want to stay in the moment here a little bit so you don’t start planning ahead too far because there will be plenty of time to celebrate if we do in fact win the game [Saturday].”
The Americans opened the tournament with an 8-0 win over Germany in the prelims, but then suffered 2-1 losses to Russia and Canada. That caused a must-win against Slovakia, and the Americans blew them out, 9-3.
They advanced to play the Czechs in the quarters, winning 7-zip, before beating Canada, 5-1. Boston College's Johnny Gaudreau continued his offensive assault with two more goals (seven in the past three), Wisconsin's Jake McCabe, the U.S. captain, had two goals and an assist and John Gibson made 36 saves.
“I think game by game we’re getting better and better as a team and that’s just what we need coming into the gold-medal game,” the superb-skating Reilly, now Connor Murphy’s defense partner after opening the tournament as Seth Jones’, said. “Playing the first games against Russia and Canada gave us a little scare there, but we just got to stay the path and keep betting better as a team. We played well against those two teams but just couldn’t put enough goals in the back of the net.”
Reilly and Potulny say the issues against Russia and Canada in the prelims were as simple as running into hot goalies and just not doing enough to create around the net.
“We had to create chemistry between one another,” said Reilly, who has three points and is plus-4. “We’re all used to playing on different teams – almost every guy, so in a quick tournament like this with only about seven games, it does take a bit of time to come together as a team. I feel we’re there now.”
Added Potulny, “With some of the guys, you hate to say it, but you almost had to stay patient because you knew that their history has shown that they can score. They’ve scored at every level. We juggled a little bit with moving a couple guys around. That may have kickstarted it. But my opinion is after awhile you play together, you get a little chemistry going.”
Defenseman Jacob Trouba has been outstanding throughout the tournament with eight points, while JT Miller and Alex Galchenyuk have caught fire with eight each as well.
Reilly says the U.S. will have its “hands full” with Sweden. The Americans beat Sweden 3-2 in overtime in an exhibition game in Finland, but both teams didn’t play their full lineups.
Sweden beat Russia in a shootout to advance to the gold-medal game and Potulny said, “That game was like a track meet. The pace of that game was crazy. The Swedes are probably the best team here at protecting the puck. It’s almost like keep-away. You’ve got to find a way to shut them down because otherwise, they’re going to hold onto it and hold onto it and hold onto it. You can’t puck watch because the moment you leave a guy open, they’re going to make a play because they’ve got skill.”
The U.S. coaching staff got to watch Sweden practice before they left Finland and Potulny said, “It looked like a North American practice -- competing and 1-on-1’s and 2-on-2’s and net battling and things at least I didn’t expect to see out of the Swedes.”
It’s been a tough tournament for Wild prospect Mario Lucia, the Notre Dame freshman (CCHA Rookie of the Month) slotted as the team’s 13th forward the past two games. He has sat on the bench the past two games but didn’t see a shift. After the win over Canada, his father, Don, sent him an email.
“I said, ‘Just think, you got hurt in August (broke tibia, tore ligaments in his ankle) and now you’re a part of it. This is your role right now. There’s only two Minnesota kids on the team and only one forward. Think of those odds. Be the best teammate you can be,’” Don Lucia said. “And he understands that. He’s an injury away, so be ready to go. Would he like to play? Sure. But this is the role he’s been given and be proud of the fact you’re a win from gold.”
Potulny said Lucia has handled this maturely.
“Anytime you come here and move guys around and juggle lines, a lot of times when you juggle, whoever becomes that 13th forward, it’s not because of what he hasn’t done,” Potulny said. “It’s just trying to get a different look for your lineup after losing to Russia and Canada.
“Unfortunately for Mario, the moment we did roll those around, that’s when Gaudreau gets hot, that’s when the power play gets going. By no fault of his own, almost bad timing for him, we caught fire when he became 13th forward. But he’s handled everything with class. He’s been our biggest cheerleader on the bench. He’s been into it and engaged. Right now it’s hard, but we had a conversation, two years ago when he was at Wayzata if we would have said, ‘hey, you’re one game away from playing in the gold-medal game at world junior,’ he would have taken it and thought it would be cool to be part of it. And if we do need him [Saturday], he’ll be ready.”
And that’s exactly what Mario Lucia said.
“The first time I was slotted as the 13th forward, it was a little hard to swallow,” Lucia said. “But I accept it. I worked my butt off to get back and get healthy and to be here. I’m looking at it this way and looking at the glass half full, not empty. My goal was to make the world junior team.
“Any kid would be dying to be in my shoes right now, to be here and be at this tournament. I’m thrilled to be here. We’re winning and that’s all that matters. When you look at it 10 years down road, you’re not going to know who scored the goals, they’re just going to know you were part of the team that won. Hopefully we’ll win gold on Saturday.”
And as Reilly said, “It would be awesome. I’ve never really put the USA jersey on a lot, but a lot of guys here have and it’s special to all of us. I know a lot of people are watching and rooting for us. It would be great for our country.”
The No. 1-ranked Gophers face Mario Lucia’s No. 2-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Mariucci on Tuesday, and Lucia made clear he plans to play despite returning to Minnesota on Sunday night and the 12-hour time difference.
Reilly hopes to play, too, but Don Lucia says he may give him the game off to rest up for the weekend conference series against Alaska-Anchorage.
Mario Lucia and Reilly are buddies, were teammates on Penticton and roommates in Russia.
“I want him to play obviously,” Lucia said. “I think he wants to play. I think it’ll be a fun game, too, and the fans should make it a sold-out barn – No. 1 vs. 2.”
I will have a lot more on Mario Lucia facing Don Lucia in Tuesday’s newspaper, but Reilly did say he hopes to play.
“I’ll worry more about it when we get home, but I for sure want to play because it’s Notre Dame. They’re the second-rated team and I know Mario’s playing in that. But it’s a coach’s decision. I know the time change will be different. I’ll see how I adjust.”
(For Don Lucia’s reasoning as to why he may not play Reilly, see two blogs ago).
Potulny and Reilly are excited that the Gophers won the Mariucci Classic with wins over Air Force and Boston College and took the No. 1 ranking in the country.
“I think they cut the dead weight and got me out of there,” Potulny joked. “They’ve been rolling. It’s almost the same thing with our group here, you have stay patient with your guys because you knew Nick [Bjugstad], Kyle [Rau], Nate Condon would score. And [goalie] Adam [Wilcox] has given us a chance to win the whole time. We just hadn’t been scoring, and if you think about it, that would have been an odd thing for us to say at the beginning of the year.
“But the guys regrouped during the break and they know what the end goal is here.”
Ryan Reilly, Mike’s older brother, scored his first collegiate goal in the win over Air Force.
“Mom texted me right away. That was awesome,” Mike Reilly said.
(By the way, I met injured Connor Reilly for the first time today down at the rink. Nicest kid and he’s coming along well with his rehab on his knee).
Potulny, a huge Vikings fans, is looking forward to getting home. He spent a lot of the conversation asking for Vikings and NHL lockout updates.
On Ufa, Russia, where the sun rises close to 11 a.m.: “We can take it off my bucket list. We don’t have to come back.”
(He was actually very complimentary of the city and the experience.)
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