Defensemen Mike Reilly and Brady Skjei have been key to U's early success.
Don Lucia, the Gophers head coach, and Grant Potulny, the Gophers assistant who doubles as an assistant for USA Hockey's upcoming world junior team, have spent the week trying to keep teenage defensemen Mike Reilly and Brady Skjei focused on the now.
It would be easy for both Reilly and Skjei to look ahead to the Dec. 16-18 training camp in Tarrytown, N.Y., and the fact that both still must earn a spot on the U.S. roster that will participate in the World Juniors tournament Dec. 26-28 in Ufa, Russia.
"You leave the summer camp, and you probably have eight, 10, 12 guys penciled in that 'they're going to have to fall off a cliff' to not be in the preliminary camp," Potulny said. "[Reilly and Skjei] were part of that group. Now, based upon what they've done so far, they're in a position to make the team."
The looming tryout has caused natural excitement and nervousness for Chanhassen's Reilly, 19, and Lakeville's Skjei, 18.
But first things first: Reilly and Skjei, two of the smoothest skaters in college hockey, have a weekend series at offensive juggernaut Colorado College, then must prepare for the first final exams of their college careers.
"We don't want them worrying about [World Juniors] right now," Lucia said.
Fifteen games into the season, the Gophers are 10-3-2 and tied for second in the WCHA, three points behind Denver. They have the nation's second-best goals-against average (1.87) and allow the second-fewest shots a game (22.4). Both rank first in the WCHA.
They have done this by living and dying with two freshmen defensemen almost all season (Skjei missed one game because of an injury).
"Mikey has a special gift offensively and will only get better," Potulny said of Reilly, who has eight points and is at plus-4. "I think you'll see him continue to get better to the point he's an elite offensive defenseman in the league. And Brady's done a good job staying within himself. Brady understands he's an elite skater. ... He can make the game easier for himself by using his feet."
That isn't to say there haven't been growing pains.
Lucia says Reilly started slow defensively but has improved by working with assistant Mike Guentzel. And Skjei has been up and down, especially lately, when he has seen his ice time slip.
"That's not surprising," Lucia said. "It's not like these two freshmen are 21."
Said Reilly: "I feel more comfortable now. I think the defense is coming easier and the game's slowing down for me a little bit. Coming in, it was a little bit of an adjustment, but I'm starting to feel better."
It helps that the Gophers have had a long list of elite defensemen, and because of the NHL lockout Reilly and Skjei get constant access to Keith Ballard, Paul Martin and Alex Goligoski, who are always around the program.
Potulny said freshmen "do, and they should, get a longer rope. This staff believes you grow your freshmen."
Still, the Gophers are about to hit the unofficial halfway mark of the season, and Lucia indicated there might come a point where the Gophers pick their best six defensemen and go with them. He said playing so many defensemen -- some nights seven, one night even eight -- has messed with defensive sets and flow despite such great statistics.
Lucia said he feels Nate Schmidt and Ben Marshall have played the best. Veterans Mark Alt and Seth Helgeson have struggled at times, with Alt even seeing his 92-game consecutive-games streak end as a healthy scratch Saturday against Nebraska Omaha. But with Guentzel benching Skjei at critical junctures lately and Lucia wanting to get Alt back in, could Skjei maybe see some games off?
"That evaluation process is game by game, week by week," Lucia said.
Skjei, a 2012 first-round pick by the Rangers who was considered by many the best skater in the draft, says, "They just think I need to play better, smarter D and limit the mistakes and I'll be able to get my ice time back up."
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