MINNEAPOLIS — Standing just 5-foot-7, Ryan Reilly is the smallest member of the Gophers men’s hockey team. On Saturday, though, the Minnesota freshman made a big impact in the Gophers’ 4-0 win over Air Force.
Reilly netted the first goal of his college career, scoring 5:34 into the second period to give Minnesota a 2-0 lead. The goal came in Reilly’s sixth career game as the freshman forward has had to battle for ice time this season.
He made the most of his ice time Saturday and possibly earned more of it after his impressive performance.
“He hasn’t played in a while. We wanted to get him back in tonight to see how he would do,” said Gophers coach Don Lucia. “He answered the bell. When a guy plays like that, then he deserves to keep playing.”
With the Gophers up 1-0 in the second period, Reilly and Minnesota’s fourth line battled for the puck in the Air Force end. When sophomore Christian Isackson found Reilly cutting to the net, Reilly buried the centering pass to beat Falcons goalie Jason Torf.
“It was a great play from that line. They went to the net for a nice, quick shot,” said Lucia said. “I thought that was (Reilly’s) best game he’s played. . . . I thought the line played well with Isackson and Justin (Holl), who almost scored in the first period as well. So we had good play throughout our lineup tonight.”
Reilly came to Minnesota as one of three brothers on the team. He and his twin brother, Connor, graduated from Holy Angels, while older brother Mike spent time at Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Faribault. Connor has yet to play for the Gophers, however, as he suffered a season-ending knee injury before the year began. Meanwhile, older brother Mike, a draft pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets, has 10 points (two goals, eight assists) in 17 games for the Gophers. He wasn’t at Mariucci Arena to see his younger brother’s first goal, though, as he’s currently playing for Team USA at the World Juniors tournament in Russia.
For one night, at least, Ryan was the star Reilly in the Minnesota lineup.
“It felt really good,” Reilly said of his goal. “Isackson made a great play down low and fed me. Luckily, I was there and put it away.”
Reilly’s parents, Mike, Sr., and Lisa, were at Mariucci to see Ryan’s first goal as a Gopher. The Reilly family didn’t make the trip to Russia to watch Mike represent the United States in the World Juniors, so they were part of the 10,113 in attendance Saturday to see Reilly help Minnesota beat Air Force.
Across the globe, Mike Reilly and Team USA will play Canada at 3 a.m. Sunday morning in one of the most highly anticipated games of the tournament. Will Ryan be up early to watch his brother?
“I don’t think so,” he said. “Maybe my brother and my parents will, but I wish him luck in his games.”
Ryan Reilly and his Gophers teammates will need their rest after Saturday’s win. Minnesota will now face Boston College on Sunday in the final game of the Mariucci Classic. The Eagles are the defending national champions — knocking out Minnesota in last year’s Frozen Four in the process — and are currently ranked No. 1 in college hockey.
Lucia said Reilly will be in the lineup again Sunday, just his seventh game of the season. After his strong play Saturday, he showed he earned it.
“I knew this was my chance to play well. It felt good getting a goal,” Reilly said. “I definitely feel more comfortable, just using my speed and quickness rather than my strength because I know I’m not the biggest guy. But I have a big heart and I’m not going to quit.”