Gophers freshman Haula regaining his finishing touch

  • Article by: ROMAN AUGUSTOVIZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 18, 2011 - 6:56 AM

A quick start gave way to a sluggish stretch for the Gophers freshman, who is shooting his way back.

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Gophers freshman center Erik Haula

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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A hockey player's outlook can change quickly.

Erik Haula was forlorn last week -- "It looked like his dog died," Gophers coach Don Lucia said.

But the freshman center from Finland had two goals and set up two others in a series against Denver, and is much happier entering this weekend's series at Wisconsin.

What was troubling Haula recently was getting only one assist -- and no goals -- in a 10-game stretch before and after the World Junior Championships held over the holidays.

Haula played well for the Finns in that international tournament in Buffalo, N.Y., with four goals and three assists in six games. But as a Gopher, he was slumping.

"When you are an offensive player and you don't score, it weighs on you," Lucia said. "Part of it, is just the mentality. You still have to feel good about yourself no matter what happens in previous games."

For Haula, the frustration spread over more than two months.

"This is probably one of the longest droughts that I have ever had," he said. "Coach just told me to have a positive attitude, come to the rink every day and try to have a smile on my face. Just keep working hard and everything will come together."

Lucia also suggested the 5-10, 184-pound Haula shoot more.

Haula scored a goal on a deflection as the Gophers lost to Denver 2-1 in the first game last weekend, then scored his fifth goal of the season and had two assists as they beat the Pioneers 7-3 in the finale. He had eight shots in the series.

"It was a big relief to get out of that slump," Haula said, "and get your mind in the right place again and to be doing the things you are good at."

Haula's 20 points, on five goals and 15 assists, put him fifth in scoring among WCHA freshmen.

"Coach gave me a great opportunity to start off as the first-line center with two seniors, Jay [Barriball] and Mike [Hoeffel]," Haula said. "I thought I did fairly well, went to World Juniors and did fairly well there and, after that, somehow something just happened."

Lucia juggled his lines for Denver, putting Haula with two different wingers. Haula might have been a tad more motivated for Denver, whose leading goal-scorer was Jason Zucker, a second-round draft pick of the Wild in 2010. The year before, the Wild took Haula in the seventh round.

Barriball, Haula's right winger most of the season, has been impressed: "He can do everything -- shoot, pass. And He's a good defensive player."

Haula was on skates at 3. His mother is a former figure skater and speedskater. His father is a former coach of Turku Trojans, one of the first American football teams in Finland. Erik was a Turku waterboy as a youngster and learned English from the players, who sometimes stayed with his family. He also speaks Swedish.

He learned football, too. Haula, at 14 or 15, played so well in a flag football tournament, he was asked to join the national team in his age group.

"My dad told them I was focusing on hockey," said Haula, who turns 20 next month.

He played for Shattuck-St. Mary's in Faribault in 2008-09, drawn there by the school's success at producing NHL players. Last season he was at Omaha, and tied for fifth in U.S. Hockey League scoring with 28 goals and 72 points. His college choices came down to North Dakota and the Gophers.

"I was closer with the guys here," Haula said, "and just liked the environment more. It's a bigger city, more students, more sports."

Lucia said the Gophers are fortunate to have Haula.

"Erik has been everything we hoped he would be this year," Lucia said. "He obviously has a high skill level and, as he matures, he will score more."

Especially if he shoots more.

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