The Gophers swarmed Adam Wilcox after the 5-0 shutout at Michigan State a month ago. One by one, teammates pressed their helmets and gloves to their goaltender’s helmet or shoulder to congratulate him on his third goose egg of the season.
The moment was more significant than the Gophers realized.
Wilcox had just moved into second place on the program’s all-time shutout list and picked up career win No. 60 — fifth on the all-time list.
The following night he made a career-high 42 saves in a 3-3 tie with the Spartans to enter the winter break in top form.
Wilcox’s name is scattered across the Gophers’ record book after just two-plus seasons in the net, and it’s no secret his consistency will likely determine whether the Gophers make another run to the Frozen Four. Wilcox leads the No. 8 Gophers into the second half of the season Friday night in the first round of the 24th annual Mariucci Classic against No. 18 Merrimack.
“I don’t really shoot for [records], I don’t really make them my goals,” Wilcox said, “but it’s kind of nice to get [them] just because I’ve put in the time here and been here a few years. It’s kind of nice getting up in the ranks here and putting a little bit of history in the program. But other than that, it’s not something I really look for.”
The junior goaltender is more concerned with how he’s communicating with defensemen or how he can be better at tracking the puck.
Afternoon 45-minute sessions with Justin Johnson, the Gophers volunteer assistant coach, help refine these skills and are good therapy for Wilcox. The past and present goaltenders spend extra time together a couple of times per week working on the technical side of the position and swapping stories about their experiences protecting Minnesota’s goal.
Johnson has a robust archive of memories playing with fellow assistant coach Grant Potulny in the early 2000s when Minnesota won back-to-back national championships.
Wilcox’s charismatic personality keeps Johnson entertained with stories of his favorite superhero, “Iron Man” Tony Stark or what it’s like living with three Reilly brothers. This friendly banter is a foundation for the results that have transformed Wilcox into a two-time nominee for the Mike Richter Award, which goes to the top goalie in Division I hockey.
“We spend just as much time talking about being a goaltender as we do what’s going on in life outside of the rink,” Johnson said. “I think he’s charismatic kid, so he’s fun to talk to and he always has a unique perspective. So I think we’ve definitely become closer over the last year and half here going through some of the highs and lows of the season, so it’s a special relationship for me.”
Wilcox’s transformation as a college goaltender has been just as special. Johnson expected a work in progress when Wilcox arrived on campus and instead he won the starting job as a freshman and embraced the pressure of carrying his team deep into the postseason.
Johnson now minimizes his role with Wilcox to making sure he’s efficient and moving. How Wilcox makes a save is up to him.
The athletic and spry 6-1, 185-pounder from South St. Paul has attracted national attention for his ability to stop shots. “SportsCenter’s” top plays have spotlighted Wilcox’s skills more than once, Bemidji State being the most recent victim when he completed back-to-back saves by reaching/diving back with his stick to fall on a rebound shot.
“We mention it,” Johnson said about his goaltender’s top plays. “Part of the joking relationship that we have we say, ‘Well of course. Why not? Why wouldn’t you? What’s it going to be next week?’ It’s not something we take too serious, but it’s something that can be fun to talk about.”
Gophers senior captain Kyle Rau also appreciates Wilcox’s jovial personality that he said always is making someone smile or laugh. Rau, however, is most appreciative of his goaltender’s consistency and ability to handle pressure.
“He handles it really well. You would never guess that we lean on him so much,” Rau said. “He’s so loose and such a happy guy to be around. He keeps everyone loose ’cause he’s loose.
“He brings it every night. They’re not a night that I can remember where it’s like, ‘Wow, where’s Adam?’ … He’s a really, really nice goaltender to have.”
However, things didn’t always appear so rosy in the first half of the season. Wilcox gave up an average of three goals per night in the first five games of the season, discounting one shutout win. After his second shutout against Notre Dame in early November, Wilcox has shown more efficiency despite the Gophers’ four overall losses and 2-3-1 record in their past six games.
Gophers coach Don Lucia said Wilcox had one of his best series in back-to-back losses to Minnesota Duluth and looked just as impressive in trips to Boston and Michigan State to close out the first half of the regular season.
“You can’t go where you want to go without a quality goaltender,” Lucia said, “and, if you look at his numbers through 14 games, his numbers are almost identical to what they were last year to this point, so he’s doing his job.
“Endurance is always a factor. Consistency is always a factor. Adam has had very few poor outings since he’s been here over two-plus years, so that’s a real sign of an outstanding goaltender.”