Adam Wilcox doesn’t believe in superstitions. Nor does he adhere to any strange pregame routines. He just likes to hang out and kick around a soccer ball with his teammates before games.
What kind of goaltender does that?
Hockey goalies carry a reputation as aloof characters who prepare in solitude and occasionally engage in odd rituals. Wilcox, the Gophers’ star goalie, is the opposite. He prefers to be one of the guys, though he’s still a goalie at heart.
“I wouldn’t consider myself normal,” he said, “but most people would.”
He’s not exactly normal between the pipes either, but that’s a good thing for the Gophers hockey team. The Gophers have a legitimate shot at bringing another national title to Dinkytown this season because their goalie is a cut above most others at that position.
Wilcox has been his team’s backbone and best player all season. On Saturday, he mostly became a spectator.
Spotted a four-goal lead, Wilcox faced only 25 shots in a 7-3 victory against Robert Morris in the first round of the NCAA tournament at Xcel Energy Center.
Wilcox gave up three goals for the first time since Feb. 14, but he also didn’t get a lot of help from his defense, which became a little loose and leaky after gaining a comfortable cushion.
“We didn’t need him to make a lot of critical saves,” coach Don Lucia said.
Tougher challenges await Wilcox as the Gophers advance in search of their sixth national championship. They won’t all be this relaxed. At some point, he’ll likely be forced to be spectacular, to make a critical save, to steal a game. A goalie’s importance is only magnified in these elimination games.
“In the playoffs, it’s all about goaltending,” Wilcox said. “Most times, if you’re letting in three or more, you’re going to pack up the bags and go home. Every team has to rely on their goalie.”
The Gophers are a testament to that premise. They spent 17 weeks atop the national polls largely because of Wilcox, an All-America and Hobey Baker candidate who won 23 games and ranked second nationally in save percentage (.933) and third in goals-against average (1.91).
Lucia’s challenge to Wilcox each game remains unchanged: Don’t allow more than two goals. Wilcox keeps a different number in mind.
“I’m thinking zero,” he said. “At this time of the year, you’ve got to keep it at zero because teams are going to be so tight defensively that one or two goals are going to be hard to come by.”
The Gophers needed Wilcox to provide that stinginess and stability, especially early in the season, after losing some high-end talent to the NHL, namely Nick Bjugstad, Nate Schmidt and Erik Haula.
Granted, it’s not as if the cupboard was empty. Nobody is weeping for the Gophers, who have 14 players on the roster who already have been selected in the NHL draft. But Lucia leans heavily on his freshman class, and Wilcox’s presence gives teammates confidence that he will cover up their mistakes and mental lapses.
“When you come into these games, you need a guy like that in net,” junior forward Sam Warning said. “It brings out all the best in the players because we know we have a goalie who can keep us in games.”
Wilcox’s success stems from his aggressiveness. He’s particularly athletic for a goaltender, reflected in the fact he was an option quarterback at South St. Paul High. Lucia can’t remember a more athletic goalie coming through his program.
Wilcox learned to harness his eagerness to go and retrieve every puck in his vicinity as a freshman. He still likes to take chances, unafraid to leave his crease. He hasn’t shed his quarterback’s mentality completely.
He’s a cool customer in net, which is a good quality to possess because the pressure will build if the Gophers advance deeper in this tournament. Wilcox’s teammates don’t worry about how their goalie will handle it.
“He’s the most normal goalie I’ve been with, but he has his moments of weirdness,” junior winger Seth Ambroz joked. “I still haven’t met an actual normal goaltender. But he’s the most normal person I’ve met when it comes to goaltenders.”
In this case, normal works. Normal is good.
Chip Scoggins email@example.com