With a week off from the WCHA schedule, all of the Gophers got a chance to heal some bumps and bruises and catch a bit of rest heading into the final weeks of the regular season. Few needed the break more than forward Erik Haula, who was still on the mend from a hand injury suffered on Dec. 30.
Haula had been playing at wing since returning to the lineup, since the injury compromised his ability to take faceoffs and defend around the goal. The top-ranked Gophers have not played since Jan. 26, and coach Don Lucia said Haula has returned to full health in the past two weeks. He will move back to center, his regular position, for this weekend's series at No. 8 St. Cloud State.
In practice this week, Lucia has put Haula between left wing Sam Warning and right wing Zach Budish, reprising a combination that had been in place for the six games before Haula's injury. Nate Condon, who had moved to center and replaced Haula on the Warning-Budish line, has been moved back to right wing with center Nick Bjugstad and left wing Kyle Rau. That trio has played together in a handful of games, most recently in the Mariucci Classic in late December.
Lucia isn't sure if he will use those same combinations against the Huskies, who are unbeaten in their past nine WCHA games and lead the league standings with 29 points. Nor is he sure that whatever combinations he settles on this weekend will stick.
"We'll continue to move guys around to see where we want them from here on out,'' he said. "(Haula) looked a little out of place playing wing the previous couple of games. I think getting him back to his natural center position is better for him and better for our team.
"Whether (the current lines) will remain by the end of the week, we'll see. That's how we're working with it right now. Those are our top six forwards. We have them together. We're still moving parts with (the third and fourth lines), and I'm sure that will be ongoing as well.''
Other notes from Wednesday's practice:
--Lucia reiterated that freshman goaltender Adam Wilcox is likely to play every game through the rest of the season if he remains healthy. The coach will continue to monitor Wilcox's workload in practices and adjust it accordingly to keep him as fresh as possible. The week off helped in that regard, Lucia said, and he noted that Wilcox managed a heavy game schedule during his two seasons in the USHL without any problems.
--Lucia is expecting a highly skilled game this weekend against the Huskies, with few penalties. He anticipates only two or three power-play opportunities per game, making it critical to cash in. St. Cloud State is the least-penalized team in NCAA Division I with an average of 8.5 penalty minutes per game. The Gophers are lightly penalized, too, standing in 49th place with 10.7 minutes per game.
--Senior forward Drew LeBlanc leads a Huskies team that is deep, well-balanced and filled with the most talent it's had in some time. LeBlanc leads the nation with 30 assists and is second nationally in scoring with 38 points. He's only eight assists shy of the school single-season record held by Brandon Sampair (2000-01) and Mark Hartigan (2001-02). He's also closing in on the program mark for most games played; he's currently at 157, four short of the record. It's been a terrific comeback for LeBlanc, who took a medical redshirt last season after an injury.
St. Cloud State also has one of the country's top rookies in forward Jonny Brodzinski. His 13 goals lead all Division I freshmen, and he's on a 13-game point streak.
--Nate Schmidt's mother has taken on the Herculean task of feeding the Gophers on Thursday night. The defenseman from St. Cloud (Cathedral HS) isn't sure what's on the menu, but he's grateful that his mom was up to the challenge. "I said, 'Are you sure you know what you're getting into?''' he said he asked her. "She's like, 'Yeah, I'd love to have the boys over.' It should be fun. Any college kid knows you never turn down a home-cooked meal.''
--If you love hockey hair, check out the Samsonesque tresses under the headgear of the Huskies' Nic Dowd, Ben Hanowski, Tim Daly, David Morley, Cory Thorson and Nick Jensen. Dowd suggested that the group grow out their hair and donate it to Locks of Love, which provides hairpieces for disadvantaged kids who have lost their hair because of medical conditions. Their ponytails need to measure 10 inches to be donated, so they've got some impressive manes going. According to Tom Nelson at St. Cloud State, Dowd had to move up to a bigger helmet size to accommodate all that hair.