The similarities between Kyle Rau and Sam Warning were too many to ignore. The Gophers forwards recognized a potential chemistry and looked beyond the fact that both played left wing last season, suggesting to coaches that they skate together.
Coach Don Lucia over the years has come to respect players’ suggestions when it comes to linemates. And the coaching staff had always wondered what a combination of Rau and Warning might produce. With the addition of freshman Hudson Fasching, the Gophers’ first line has exceeded expectations the first two weeks.
The trio has 20 points through four games. Warning’s nine points are tied for the NCAA scoring lead.
“I think we are two similar players that think alike,” Rau said. “I could see myself in his shoes and he can do the same, so that helps us together. I’ve noticed it for two years.”
Once the coaching staff determined Rau would move from left wing to center, and freshman Justin Kloos would center the second line, the pieces were in place for the Rau-Warning combination.
Rau to Warning produced Warning’s first goal of the season. Warning has five goals, four assists through the Gophers’ 4-0 start. Rau has one goal, four assists. Fasching has two goals, four assists.
“I think their hockey sense is the first thing that sticks out,” said Grant Potulny, the Gophers assistant coach who works most with forwards. “Obviously their skill set is high, but they all think the game well. Sam is playing at a really high level, and Fasching is at a high level, and Rau hasn’t missed a beat from last year.”
A welcomed third wheel
The big body in the Gophers’ first line is an 18-year-old freshman. Fasching, however, makes you forget about his age. If his 6-foot-2, 207-pound frame doesn’t do it, his ability will.
Warning described his new teammate’s early effort as “unbelievable” and Rau said Fasching doesn’t play like a freshman. Even Lucia has been pleasantly surprised. Fasching impressed Lucia during last summer’s World Juniors camp, and has since shown improvement on offense.
Everything added up to a first-line spot at right wing.
Lucia said Fasching continues to show the coaching staff he might be better than they thought he was. That’s a difficult talk, considering he was recruited with expectations he would fill a first-line role right away. Not only does he provide a big body up front, he’s fast and has good touch around the net.
Per team rules, Fasching because he is a freshman isn’t allowed to speak to media yet. His name is often referenced in interviews, though. The upperclassmen don’t mind speaking about the young forward and expect him to continue to attract attention.
Fasching’s size is a big piece to the success of the first line. His linemates — Rau is 5-8, Warning 5-9 — benefit from his presence in front of the crease. Fasching gets into the dirty areas to make plays and dish to the juniors.
The Gophers’ top line will get a stiff test this weekend. No. 5 Boston College also has one of the better first lines in college hockey, led by Johnny Gaudreau.
Lucia warns that it’s early to tout the Gophers’ first line as special. Tests against top programs Boston College and Notre Dame the next two series should show where it stands, he said.
Warning said there’s good chemistry among the group, yet room to improve.
During practices the teammates gravitate to one another between drills and communicate well. Those are early signs of a line that is clicking, Potulny said.
“So far, they’re right there [as one of the best],” he said. “I think this weekend will be a great test. I think big-time lines play [their best] in weekends like this. … So I think that’s where we’ll see if they are ready to be that big-time line throughout the year that people talk about.”
The chatter is off to a hot start.
Jason Gonzalez • 612-673-4494 Twitter: @JGonStrib