The more important the challenge, the better Gophers freshman Adam Wilcox plays.
By TYLER MASONFS North
MINNEAPOLIS — Adam Wilcox came to the University of Minnesota campus this fall for a job interview of sorts.
The freshman from South St. Paul was in a competition with junior Mike Shibrowski to become
Golden Gophers' starting goaltender. For the first few weeks of the college hockey season, Minnesota coach Don Lucia played each goalie for one game a weekend to see how they handled certain situations.
But there was one game — and perhaps even one play — in October when Wilcox seized the starting job and made it his own.
"There was a particular save up in Michigan Tech where he was sliding one way and the puck got tipped back, and he made just this tremendous glove save off a reaction," said Justin Johnson, a volunteer assistant coach who works with Minnesota's goalies. "That's where we looked at it and said, 'Wow, this kid is really seeing the puck well. He's ready for the types of mishaps and tips and stuff that happen. He's ready to play.'"
With that performance, Wilcox became the Gophers' goalie of the present and the future.
Wilcox hasn't left the net since starting the second game of that Michigan Tech series, a 3-2 win for the Gophers. After Tuesday's victory against Notre Dame, Wilcox has started 18 games, including 17 in a row. Along the way, he's garnered numerous accolades, twice winning WCHA Rookie of the Week honors.
"It's nice to look at. It shows you're doing well, but you've kind of got to put it aside," Wilcox said of the awards. "You've got to look at it and kind of put it in the back of your mind and then get rid of it. You've got to take it game by game because one game can change a lot. One weekend can change it."
Wilcox's stats put him among some of the nation's top goalies. He's posted a 1.62 goals-against average, sixth in the country and second in the WCHA. His save percentage of .929 is third in the conference. And he already has three shutouts; only three college hockey goalies have more.
On Tuesday against Notre Dame, Wilcox made one of his more impressive saves of the year when he blanked Bryan Rust on a breakaway in the third period. It helped the Gophers maintain a 3-1 lead and showed just how cool Wilcox has been under pressure this season.
"That's what Adam's been able to do, and that's one of the things that's impressed me the most is he makes the timely save, and really you can probably count on one hand the number of goals that maybe you could say it wasn't a good goal," Lucia said. "He makes the saves you're supposed to, too. He hasn't let in any leakers."
Lucia credits Wilcox's athleticism for not only being able to make the impressive saves but to be in goal for back-to-back games. That athleticism was evident in high school, when Wilcox was also an all-state quarterback for the South St. Paul football team.
Wilcox might even be able to hold his own as a forward on the Gophers, he said. During winter break, he joined some of his teammates for optional skates and ditched the goalie pads to take shots on net. Wilcox figures he might have a chance at being a second- or third-line forward, describing himself as a "playmaker."
"All I know is that he's a tremendous athlete," Johnson said. "So whatever he's trying, he can be pretty good at it."
All in the family
Wilcox first started playing goalie when he was 5 years old, and he has his older cousin and former Minnesota-Duluth goaltender Alex Stalock to thank for that.
Wilcox's mother and Stalock's mother are sisters, and both families live in St. Paul, which means Adam and Alex saw plenty of each other when they were younger. Stalock is five years older than Wilcox, but he'd still use his younger cousin as a goaltender when he got tired of being in net and decided he wanted to take some shots on goal.
"They had a rink in their back yard and we had a rink in our back yard, too, when we were younger," Stalock said. "I'd work on some stuff with him or just go down and skate with him. It was good. A good way for him to start playing goalie."
Stalock went on to star at Minnesota-Duluth from 2006-09. Since college, the San Jose Sharks product has played for the Worcester Sharks of the AHL. He made his NHL debut during the 2010-11 season, playing just 30 minutes in one game for San Jose. He has since worked his way back from a devastating leg injury that sidelined him for a year.
When it came time for Wilcox to make his college choice, his cousin tried to persuade him to follow in his footsteps and head north to Duluth. In the end, Wilcox decided to stay home and play for the Gophers.
"My family is big UMD fans. I took that into account. It was between UMD and here," Wilcox said. "It just came down to I wanted to come here most. I thought this would be the best place for me. It's a school I thought would have the best potential to win a championship."
So far, Wilcox's decision is paying off. He's the starting goaltender for the top-ranked team in college hockey, one that many have picked to contend for the national championship.
If the Gophers do end up back in the Frozen Four, it'll be thanks in large part to Wilcox. The freshman is now 13-2-3 and has the nation's second-best winning percentage (.806). He rarely looks rattled in net, exhibiting plenty of confidence for a freshman.
That poise was certainly evident in Minnesota's last two games. The Gophers hosted top-ranked Boston College on Dec. 30, but Wilcox wasn't fazed. He stopped 32 of 33 shots he faced to help Minnesota rout the Eagles, 8-1.
"Those are my favorite games, when it comes down to the top teams," Wilcox said.
On Tuesday, Notre Dame came to Mariucci Arena with the No. 2 ranking in the country. Once again, Wilcox rose to the occasion against elite competition. He allowed just one goal, stopping 22 shots in Minnesota's 4-1 win.
"It's almost as if in some ways he's come in here and this is what he's expected of himself. He operates under this calmness of, 'Well, this is normal for me. This is what I expected to do. This is what I wanted to do, and it's happening,' " Johnson said. "I think some other goaltenders I've worked with over the past have maybe been a little burdened by that, like, 'OK, they've worked so hard to get here and now it's here and it's in my hands.' … He's really taken it and ran with it."
Wilcox was a sixth-round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. Like many college hockey players, he has aspirations of playing at the next level. Seeing his cousin get that chance reinforced the goal for Wilcox.
For now, though, Wilcox isn't looking too far ahead. He's not even looking ahead to next weekend, which will be his first taste of Minnesota's rivalry with North Dakota. His focus remains on the Gophers' upcoming series with Alaska-Anchorage.
Everything else can wait.
"I try not to get ahead of myself," Wilcox said. "I always put that as my goal for down the road, but I always take it game by game. If you don't take care of the present, the future's not going to be there."