MINNEAPOLIS — Departing for the holiday break in December, Minnesota Gophers junior forward Nate Condon was given an assignment from hockey coach Don Lucia.
“Go home and find 10 goals laying around the house when you’re on break,” Condon recalled Wednesday of Lucia’s pre-break message.
With just three goals in the season’s first 17 games, Condon wasn’t giving Minnesota the secondary scoring it needed from a player often assigned to the second line. So, Condon returned home to Wausau, Wis. to find his scoring touch. The search didn’t involve looking under couch cushions or digging through closets. Condon, with six goals in the past seven games for the top-ranked Gophers (17-3-4, 9-3-4 WCHA) found his goal-scoring ability in a place that can only come from being at home.
“I think I found them all laying in my mom’s cooking when I was home,” Condon joked. Condon helped secure three points for Minnesota last weekend against North Dakota and a tie atop the WCHA with St. Cloud State. Condon, who’s scored in three straight games, was named the conference’s offensive player of the week after being named the No. 1 star in each game last weekend against UND.
Once mired in a slump, Condon is now fourth on the Gophers in scoring with nine goals and is tied with defenseman Nate Schmidt for fourth with 23 points as Minnesota heads into a weekend home-and-home series against Minnesota State. The Gophers will host the Mavericks (15-8-3, 9-8-1) on Friday night and play in Mankato on Saturday.
“The key for us is can Condon’s line play the same way as they did last weekend,” Lucia said. “I thought (Zach) Budish was outstanding, his wall play, his sense of urgency, made a great play on the tying goal by Condon. I thought Sam Warning had a good game. That’s what you have to have. You have to have other guys contribute night-in and night-out too. That’s what we had last weekend.”
Lucia expected more out of Condon, and he’s been getting it since the break.
Condon played on a wing the first 15 games this season and fell as far as the fourth line before the holiday break. When Minnesota returned, Lucia put Condon with the top line of Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau and the goal-scoring streak began. A switch to center, where’s he’s played seven of the past nine games, hasn’t stopped Condon’s momentum and he’s found his rhythm while playing with Budish and Warning on the second line the past five games.
“It was great,” Condon said. “Sam’s a real skilled guy, a real fast player and pushes the puck up and down the ice and then you’ve got Zach who is going to, just like our tying goal on Saturday, is going to muscle the puck and work in the corners, and he creates a lot of space for Sam and I to work the puck around. It’s been working well for us.”
Condon’s emergence has helped Lucia ease in Erik Haula, who’s first on the team with 29 points (10 goals, 19 assists), from an injury. Haula, who said he’s more comfortable at center, returned last weekend after missing three games and played wing on a line with Bjugstad and Rau.
“It was a little adjustment period playing wing and stuff, but they’re two good players,” said Haula, who had a goal and two assists last weekend. “I think we need a couple more days to get adjusted with ourselves and get used to playing with each other…I would say we have the ability to be a pretty good line, but like I said, it’s not always easy to set a new line and get it going right away.”
Lucia said Haula will play this weekend, likely in a similar role on a wing, and then benefit from the Gophers’ bye the following week and return closer to 100 percent for a series Feb. 8-9 at St. Cloud State.
A return to health by Haula, doesn’t mean changes are in the works for Condon’s line.
“The way Condon’s played at center that gives us some more options,” Lucia said. “It’s something I thought about doing, quite frankly, the whole year. Now, like I said, Condon’s playing the way he is and Warning, now that is an option. When Erik’s 100 percent healthy, we could easily move Nick to right wing and have Erik at center and Kyle at left wing and see if they can develop some chemistry as a threesome, but that’s something we’ll experiment with, or we can always put Erik back to center and put Condon up there with him too.”
Lucia might just be cooking up some scoring ideas of his own.