Sam Warning doesn't like to think of himself as a pass-first player. The Gophers winger prefers to call himself a playmaker, but he agrees that his natural inclination is to be a middleman, one who believes the best route to a goal is usually to put the puck on a teammate's stick.
Don Lucia wants him to fight that urge. The Gophers coach said that if the sophomore takes four or five shots a game, he will be scoring regularly -- giving the nation's top-ranked hockey team even more firepower as it enters a critical part of its schedule. Warning will aim for those shot totals during this weekend's WCHA series against Alaska-Anchorage at Mariucci Arena, fresh off a three-game stretch that has put him on a roll.
In the Gophers' recent nonconference victories over Air Force, Boston College and Notre Dame, Warning tallied two goals and three assists to stitch together his longest point streak of the season. After registering only two assists in the Gophers' first four games -- then sitting out for a month because of a shoulder injury -- he has scored four goals in the past five games.
Warning credits his linemates, right winger Zach Budish and centers Erik Haula and Nate Condon, with helping him get into a groove. It falls on Warning, Lucia said, to make sure it continues.
"Sam is one of those guys we watch in practice, and he's scoring,'' said Lucia, whose team is undefeated in its past six games. "I keep telling him he's got to shoot the puck more, because he's got a good shot, and he doesn't get enough of them. He's very patient with the puck. He's almost in that pass-first, shoot-second mentality, and he's got to change his mentality to be a shooter.''
"I definitely need to shoot more,'' he said. "Four to five shots a game is a pretty good goal of mine now, and that's what I've been trying to do lately.''
In 11 games this season, Warning has four goals and six assists, though he has only 13 shots on goal. Lucia has expanded Warning's role this season, using him on the power play and penalty kill as he has seen Warning grow in confidence and consistency.
At 5-9, Warning possesses speed and a solid knowledge of the game. He struggled to maintain an even level of performance as a freshman, tailing off after a hot start. Warning finished the season with six goals and 10 assists for 16 points, the second most among the Gophers' rookies -- but after scoring three goals in his first five games, he went 19 games without one.
Still, he played in 39 of 43 games, gaining experience that made him feel ready for more responsibility as a sophomore. Warning has played with Budish in all of his games this season. Haula centered their line until he injured his hand on Dec. 30 and Condon took over. That stability, Warning said, has helped him become more confident as he works toward Lucia's vision for him.
The coach said Warning has improved his consistency this season, and he noted that his nine-game absence from the lineup left a noticeable void. His play during the recent streak, in which the Gophers defeated then-No. 1 Boston College and No. 2 Notre Dame with Warning contributing a goal and an assist in each game, has him eager to dive back into the WCHA schedule.
While it might never be his instinct to shoot first, he knows the Gophers will benefit if he finds a better balance.
"Sometimes, it can be hard,'' Warning said. "This year, I have a lot more confidence. When the shot's open, I know when to take it; when I don't need to take it, I know when to pass. Over time, you acquire that consistency. That's what I'm trying to do, just work every day to become a better hockey player.''