Haula's scoring touch returns

The Gophers sophomore from Finland has been the team's best player since the postseason began.

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Gophers forward Erik Haula has five goals and four assists in his past four games.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune file

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Erik Haula started this hockey season hotter than any player in the country.

Now the Gophers sophomore center is heating up again at the best time -- leading into the NCAA tournament, with the Gophers set to play Boston University on Saturday in the West Regional semifinals at Xcel Energy Center.

Haula has five goals and four assists in his past four games, starting with the last game of the regular season.

"At times, [Haula] doesn't get the attention of Nick [Bjugstad] or some of the other guys," Gophers coach Don Lucia said. "Without question, he has been our best player in the playoffs."

Bjugstad, a first-line center who leads the Gophers with 24 goals, was named to the All-WCHA first team. Defenseman Nate Schmidt, the team's assist leader with 35, made the all-conference second team and forward Kyle Rau made the all-rookie team.

Haula? The Gophers nominated him for All-WCHA consideration. The center of the second line was overlooked.

All Haula has done recently is score big goals. His shorthanded goal in the third period against Wisconsin inspired a 2-1 comeback victory in the regular-season finale, which clinched an outright MacNaughton Cup championship. In the first round of the WCHA playoffs, he had two goals each game as the Gophers swept Alaska Anchorage. Even in the 6-3 loss to North Dakota in the Final Five semifinals last week, he had two assists.

"Erik has been awesome," Bjugstad said.

"I have gotten some good looks lately," said Haula, a seventh-round pick of the Wild in 2009, "and they have been going in fortunately. It has definitely helped my confidence."

Haula is second on the Gophers in both goals with 19 and assists with 27.

"I am really excited to play" in the NCAA tournament, said the 5-11, 187-pound forward from Pori, Finland. "We are going to have the same crowd we had last weekend. Unfortunately, we lost to North Dakota. After playing so well the first half, we had an absolute collapse the second half. It was embarrassing."

The Gophers had a 3-0 lead and were badly outshooting UND for 30 minutes, but the Fighting Sioux dominated after that. Several other Gophers said they never had played in a game that turned around so decisively.

Haula had. In the quarterfinals of the 2011 World Junior Championships, Finland, Haula's team, was leading Russia 3-1 with five minutes left. Russia tied the score and won in overtime. He said he had a flashback to Finland's loss when North Dakota rallied.

"I don't want it to happen ever again," he said. "As leaders we've got to be able to take a punch and give one back. Like Coach [Lucia] said, 'You just have to learn from that.'"

Opponents quickly learned to be careful of Haula. He had seven goals and 10 assists in the first seven games this season to become the first Gophers player with 17 points in a month since Thomas Vanek in November of 2002. Vanek, from Austria, was the Gophers' first player from Europe.

Haula has four game-winners and when he gets at least one point, the Gophers are 19-5-1.

His father, Tomi, owns a vacation condo in Tampa, Fla., which happens to be the site of Frozen Four on April 5 and 7. Haula's father plans to fly to Tampa if the Gophers are there. But his son won't want talk about the Frozen Four or even a possible rematch with North Dakota on Sunday.

"If we don't win Saturday, the season is over," Haula said. "We are all focused on Boston University. It is going to be the toughest game this year so far."

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