Rachel Blount writes about a wide variety of sports subjects, including Olympic sports, women's sports and social issues that intersect with the games we watch and play. She has been at the Star Tribune for 20 years, covering everything from hockey to horse racing to seven Olympic Games. An Iowa native, she holds degrees from the University of Notre Dame and the University of Missouri and is married to fellow sportswriter Pat Borzi.

Gophers hockey update, Jan. 23

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: January 23, 2013 - 7:01 PM

Of the many things Don Lucia liked in last weekend's victory and tie against North Dakota, none stood out more than the play of the Sam Warning-Nate Condon-Zach Budish line. That group--and the Erik Haula-Nick Bjugstad-Kyle Rau combination--will stay together this weekend for a series against Minnesota State Mankato.

The Gophers split with the Mavericks earlier this season, winning 3-2 at Mariucci Arena and losing 5-3 in Mankato. Lucia said he thought MSU had a good team then, and he likes them even more now. He could say the same of his team, which got additional scoring punch--something it will need in the second half of the season--from the Condon line. Condon was named the WCHA's offensive player of the week after scoring two goals and adding three assists against North Dakota, and Warning and Budish also made some outstanding individual efforts in the series.

Haula still is healing from the hand injury he sustained against Boston College on Dec. 30. Lucia gave him some extra time off this week and expects to use him at wing again this week. Haula, who said he is not yet at 100 percent, is itching to get back to center.

That could happen when he is fully healed, which Lucia anticipates will happen in time for the Gophers' Feb. 8-9 series at St. Cloud State--which comes after a bye on Feb. 1-2. At that point, he will reassess his combinations.

"The way Condon has played at center gives us some more options,'' Lucia said. "That's something we thought about doing the whole year. Now that Condon is playing the way he is, and Warning, now that's an option.

"When Erik is 100 percent healthy, we could easily move Nick to right wing and have Erik at center and Kyle at left wing. We'll see if they can develop some chemistry as a threesome. That's something we'll experiment with. We can always pur Erik back at center and put Condon up there with him.We'll look at that in the two weeks before we play St. Cloud.''

Condon had only three goals at the Christmas break. He's scored six in his past seven games while centering Warning and Budish for five of those. Condon said he hasn't made any major changes, but he listened when Lucia got on his case at the break, telling him the team needed more from him. He knew his coach was right, and instead of pouting, he just got to work.

Lucia said Condon always has been a hard worker. Now, he is making his presence felt more consistently in games. "He's done a great job at center in Erik's absence, and his overall play has really elevated,'' Lucia said.  "Since Christmas, he seems to be a little different player than he was in the first half.''

Other notes from Wednesday's media session:

--On MSU, which has won 12 of its past 15 games: "I know how Mike (Hastings) coaches,'' Lucia said of the Mavericks' leader. "Now he has a better understanding of his team. Going into that first month, he was trying to figure out what his players could and couldn't do. All of a sudden, they've settled in on the freshman goaltender (Stephon) Williams, who has been spectacular since he's taken over.

"I said at the beginning of the year that they were a team that could really make a big jump, given the injuries they've had. Their top guys were freshmen last year. They're a good team, a deep team. I'm not surprised at all at the success they're having.''

--On the workload of freshman goalie Adam Wilcox, whom Lucia expects to start both games this weekend: "He's OK. There are times at practice when we tell him to stay out of the net for awhile, or to warm up for 20 minutes and see some pucks and then go take a shower. In the last month, we'll probably give him a second day off. We'll gauge that from week to week.'' (Lucia added that backup goalie Mike Shibrowski could see some playing time "a few weeks from now.'')

 

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