Success with U eases separation pangs for U's Rau

  • Article by: ROMAN AUGUSTOVIZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 11, 2011 - 3:42 AM

Kyle Rau leads NCAA freshmen in scoring, just months removed from a successful partnership with his twin.

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Gophers freshman forward Kyle Rau (left) waited to embrace teammates Zack Budish and Justin Holl after scoring the decisive goal against North Dakota on Saturday night at Mariucci Arena.

Photo: Janet Hostetter, Associated Press

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Gophers freshman Kyle Rau misses his twin brother, Curt. They always played on the same hockey teams growing up in Eden Prairie. But this season Curt, the taller twin by 2 inches, is a defenseman for the Odessa Jackalopes, a Junior A team in the North American Hockey League.

"It's weird not seeing [Curt] every day," Kyle Rau said.

But one Rau has been plenty for the Gophers -- and a handful for opposing teams. Kyle, the Gophers' smallest forward at 5-8 and 172 pounds, is adjusting pretty well to college hockey. Just ask his head coach or his two sophomore linemates, Nick Bjugstad and Zach Budish, who tower over him.

Rau's long-anticipated arrival at the University of Minnesota has been one of the keys to the Gophers' 9-1 start. They are rated No. 1 nationally and are unbeaten in six WCHA games going into their conference series at Wisconsin on Friday and Saturday.

Rau leads all Division I freshmen in goals with eight and in points with 15. His four game-winners are more than any player. He was chosen the national rookie of the month in October.

"I like pressure on myself," Rau said. "It makes me better."

His goal with 46 seconds left Saturday gave the Gophers a 3-2 victory over North Dakota and a sweep of the Fighting Sioux.

"[Kyle] is going to score goals," Gophers coach Don Lucia said. "He has scored all his life. [Some] guys have that dirty, rotten habit to score goals, and he has got it. It is a nice habit to have. He knows where to go. He finds empty ice and the puck seems to follow him."

Rau, the puck magnet, has played on five state championship teams: one as a pee wee, two as a bantam and two as a teen for Eden Prairie High School. The Eagles beat Duluth East in the Class 2A state final in March on Rau's goal in the third overtime.

"I saw him all the way up," said Lucia, whose son Mario often played on Wayzata teams facing Rau's teams. "I saw him as a bantam score 100 goals. So he was a high-priority recruiting target at a young age."

From the start of the season, Rau has played on the Gophers' top line, the power play and the penalty kill. Those special teams are fourth in the nation and tied for 12th, respectively. "It's just been a blast. I never thought it would be this much fun," Rau said.

His two most memorable moments so far don't include any of his goals. The first, Rau said, was the practice in which he was put at left wing on the line with Bjugstad and Budish. "I was real excited about that," Rau said. The second moment? "Just going around the circle at the end of North Dakota."

On Saturday, the Gophers gathered at center ice and, as the band finished playing "Battle Hymn of the Republic," the players slammed their sticks down, then regaled the cheering crowd with a stick salute. It's a tradition after home sweeps.

"We worked so hard for that the whole week," Rau said. "It was all we were talking about, being around that circle. So once it happened, it was like, wow."

That's basically Budish's impression of Rau. "[Kyle] has eight goals in 10 games," said Budish, a 6-3 right winger. "That is pretty phenomenal for anyone let alone a true freshman coming out of high school. I know if I get him and Nick [Bjugstad] the puck there is a good chance they can put it away."

Bjugstad, a 6-5 center, also has eight goals, tying him with Rau for the team lead. Both skate so well, too, that Budish said he is trying to improve his speed to keep up with them.

Bjugstad appreciates Rau's skills just as much, saying, "[Kyle] has proven to everyone that he can play at this level."

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