Rau stepped right in, Gophers stepped up

 Kyle Rau helped set the tone early for a turnaround season that has the Gophers in the Frozen Four.

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Gophers left winger Kyle Rau plays bigger than his size suggests and with more savvy than his freshman status indicates.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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Fifty-six seconds into his first college hockey game this past October, freshman Kyle Rau scored his first goal. For a Gophers program looking for a metaphorical jump-start after three consecutive seasons missing the NCAA tournament, Rau delivered quite literally.

Those goals, mostly from close range, have kept coming for the Gophers freshman -- much as his head coach expected.

"[Kyle] is going to score goals; he has scored all his life," Don Lucia said. He has repeated those or similar words throughout the past six months and will likely say them again as the Gophers prepare for the Frozen Four starting Thursday in Tampa, Fla.

Rau, 19, leads the team with six game-winning goals and in power-play goals, but his contributions go beyond the stat sheet. In some ways, he has helped shape and change the identity of the team. If one of the main critiques of recent Gophers rosters is that they were full of skilled potential pro players who lacked grit, Rau -- who is only 5-8 and 172 pounds -- is the antithesis.

"The best way to describe him is tenacious," linemate Zach Budish said. "He'd be the smallest guy out there, but he will mix it up with guys that are 8 or 9 inches taller than him and have 75 pounds on him. He is fearless."

Lucia said the Gophers needed Rau to contribute this season, and he did immediately. Rau has thrived as the left winger on the team's top line with center Nick Bjugstad and Budish. He was named the national rookie of the month in October, when he scored seven goals. The Gophers, picked to finish sixth in the WCHA, rocketed to a 7-1 start and rode that momentum to the WCHA regular-season and the berth in the Frozen Four.

"We are all excited to be where we are," Rau said, "and we are all happy."

Big-name recruit

Rau, who became a Gophers fan a decade ago as the team was winning back-to-back NCAA titles in 2002 and 2003, brought high expectations that he could help return the program to glory.

His hockey credentials were impeccable. Unlike many top prep players who opt for the junior hockey their senior year, Rau stayed at Eden Prairie High School. He had a monster season playing with his twin brother, Curt, and a bunch of longtime buddies from youth hockey. He scored 41 goals as the Eagles won their second Class 2A state title in three years. His diving, highlight-reel goal gave Eden Prairie a three-overtime victory over Duluth East in the championship game.

Rau was chosen the state's Mr. Hockey and then joined Sioux Falls for the USHL playoffs and surprisingly led the league in postseason points. The Florida Panthers selected him in the third round of the 2011 NHL draft.

"He never gives up on anything," said Curt Rau, a defenseman for the NAHL's Odessa Jackalopes.

Kyle's teammates on the Gophers soon found that out.

"A lot of guys come to college and it takes them a little bit to figure it out," captain Taylor Matson said. "Kyle stepped in right away."

Rau has 18 goals this season and leads Division I freshmen with 43 points. The only rookie with more goals is Johnny Gaudreau of Boston College with 20. Their teams meet Thursday in the semifinals.

"They are very similar-type players," Lucia said. "About the same size. Both very slippery. Very highly skilled."

In grandpa's mold

Kyle Rau's grandfather, Jerry Rau was small, too. He was a 5-8, 195-pound guard for the Gophers football team from 1952 to '54. His best friend on the team was Paul Giel, a two-time All-America.

"I got to like Rau because of how hard he worked on the football field," Giel was quoted as saying in a 1953 newspaper story. "He impressed me as a guy who never quit."

Jerry Rau, playing in a single wing, often pulled to block for Giel on runs and passes. Before he died in 2000, Jerry Rau enjoyed telling stories to his twin grandsons on their vacation visits about his football days and other life experiences.

At home, Kyle had a backyard rink and three brothers to play with. Matt is 26 years old now. Chad, who has bounced back and forth between the Houston Aeros and the Wild this season, is 25. Matt stands 6-1, Chad 5-11 and Curt, born one minute before Kyle, is 5-10, 185.

"Kyle had to work hard and strengthen himself to compete with us," Curt said.

Said their father, Mike Rau, who played for Edina West in high school: "Kyle was always dragged along when the two older boys were playing. And he would always go behind the net and watch the games from ice level. He was always watching and studying. ... Of all our kids, Kyle was always the best checker."

Coaches and teammates alike marvel at his hockey IQ, his ability to find open spots near the net. Budish appreciates Rau's skill and versatility.

"He plays on the power play, he plays on the penalty kill. He is good defensively. He blocks shots," Budish said. "He does little things that don't show up on the scoreheet."

Away from the rink, Rau -- a serious student who is enrolled in the Carlson School of Management -- blends in easily with the mass of students at the university.

Well, except for his ultrablond hair. Team leaders coaxed everyone into dyeing their locks for the playoffs. Kyle's parents suggested a trim might be wise after the color change.

"No, we are going with it," he said.

He wants to fit in, even if it temporarily means looking like a member of a punk rock band.

The best for last

One of Rau's strongest traits is particularly relevant this time of year: He plays his best in the biggest games.

In addition to his state tournament heroics last season, he scored in the last minute to give the Gophers a sweep of North Dakota at Mariucci Arena in early November. And in the first West Regional game last weekend, Rau had a goal and three assists against Boston University for a season-high four points.

"That is what we train for in the summertime," Rau said, "to be in the big game. And now it is here."

For the first time since 2005, the Gophers are in the Frozen Four. There are plenty of reasons, but Rau is near the top of the list.

"This is where the program belongs," Rau said, "and everyone knows that."

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  • NCAA HOCKEY FROZEN FOUR tampa, fla.

    Thursday: Union vs. Ferris State, 3:30 p.m.; Gophers vs. Boston College, 7 p.m. (ESPN2) • Saturday: Championship, 6 p.m.

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