To the Gophers’ opponents, it must seem as if Kyle Rau is never quiet. The sophomore forward is well-known around the WCHA for his incessant chirping during games, which antagonizes rivals nearly as much as his ability to score timely goals.
Nick Bjugstad said that is merely Rau’s on-ice persona. Offstage, Bjugstad explained, his linemate and roommate is a regular Clark Kent: reserved, calm, not given to speaking up in the locker room.
“He’s kind of the opposite of what he is on the ice,’’ Bjugstad said. “He’s very relaxed; he studies a lot and he goes to bed early. You’d never guess he’s a feisty little guy out there.’’
Rau is not simply a provocateur. The big-goal reputation he earned at Eden Prairie High School has followed him to college, where he has scored 13 game-winning goals in two seasons — including seven this season, the most of any player in Division I. The same pugnacious streak that fuels his verbal jabs also gives him the nerve to mix it up in front of the net, not the easiest place for a 5-8 winger to thrive.
The latest big goal from this small player came in last week’s WCHA first-round playoff opener against Bemidji State. Rau charged to the net to seize the rebound of his own shot and fire it in to give the Gophers an overtime victory, one that helped propel them to Friday’s WCHA Final Five semifinal at Xcel Energy Center.
It’s a stage Rau knows and appreciates, mostly. He won two state titles at Eden Prairie and secured the second with a memorable diving goal to end a triple-overtime title game against Duluth East in 2011. But he also remembers the 6-3 thumping the Gophers absorbed at the hands of North Dakota in last year’s Final Five semifinals, setting another spark under his fiery nature as the Gophers play their last games as members of the WCHA.
“I think my role is to let the big dogs do their thing, then try to hang around in the background and pitch in when I can,’’ said Rau, who is the Gophers’ second-leading scorer with 15 goals and 24 assists. “I don’t really think about [scoring winning goals]. But when the game is on the line, you love to be that guy who helps your team win the game.’’
Rau has played the entire season alongside Bjugstad, a center, usually on the left wing. His 6-6 linemate appreciates Rau’s knack for unnerving other players with both his words and his stick. The Gophers are 23-1-1 this season when Rau scores a point.
During a blockbuster freshman year, Rau scored six game-winners, third-most in Division I. Already a fan favorite because of his performances at the state tournament, his gritty style transferred immediately to the college game. Rau made the WCHA’s all-rookie team after scoring 18 goals and 25 assists and finishing plus-23.
Rau said he has developed his overall game in two seasons with the Gophers, giving special attention to developing his shot. Coach Don Lucia took no credit for nurturing Rau’s ability to score deciding goals. Some players simply have a gift for stepping up at critical times, he said, and Rau puts himself into position to do so by standing his ground around the net.
In the postseason, Lucia said, most goals are scored in that rough area — and Rau’s teammates know he will be in prime position.
Bjugstad noted that Rau plays like a much bigger person, energizing the Gophers with resounding hits as well as important goals and verbal sparring. He’s particularly impressed, he said, that Rau so quickly figured out how to score the not-so-pretty goals in front of the net, a skill that some players never master.
“It all goes back to his grit and his smarts,’’ said fellow sophomore Christian Isackson, who has played right wing on the Bjugstad-Rau line for much of the season. “He’s the kind of guy that gets in there, and whether it’s against a 6-4 guy or a 5-10 guy, he’s winning the stick battles and getting to the right place at the right time.’’
The goals have not come as frequently lately. Rau has only two in his past 16 games, though both were game-winners. Lucia said Rau just received a new batch of sticks, teasing that those should eliminate any excuses for not scoring a big one — or more — this weekend.
Rau welcomes that kind of thinking.
“I’m excited to be in that position, knowing you can do a lot to help your team,’’ he said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.’’