Gophers freshmen granted grand opportunity

MINNEAPOLIS — Gophers freshmen Brady Skjei and Mike Reilly will have a big opportunity to represent their country later this month, but the two defensemen insist they’re not looking past this weekend’s series against Colorado College.

Skjei and Reilly were both named to the U.S. National Junior Team’s preliminary roster for the upcoming International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Juniors tournament, a rather prestigious event in the junior hockey world. While neither Minnesota freshman has made the final roster yet, just getting the opportunity to go to New York and battle for a spot is an honor, they said Wednesday.

“It was one of my goals, for sure,” Skjei said. “I’m really excited I’ve made the preliminary roster, but it’s still not for sure yet.”

Skjei and Reilly will be two of nine defensemen on the preliminary roster, which will be whittled down to seven defensemen before the tournament. Fifteen forwards and three goalies were also invited to the training camp, which runs Dec. 16-18 at Madison Square Garden Training Center in New York. The final roster will be announced Dec. 23 after more training in Helsinki, Finland.

Before then, Skjei and Reilly still have two games to play this weekend.

“I can’t think about that too much right now because I’m still playing here,” said Reilly, who has a goal and seven assists in 15 games. “I’ve just got to worry about the weekend and next week for finals for school as well. I can worry about (world juniors) two weeks from now.”

Skjei, a Lakeville, Minn., native, was a first-round pick of the New York Rangers in this year’s draft (28th overall). He already has some experience representing the United States, as he played for Team USA in the Under-18 Men’s World Championships in the Czech Republic. He spent two years as a member of the U.S. National Development Team (USNDTP) in Ann Arbor, Mich., which grooms players for international play and the NHL.

Because of his ties to U.S. hockey, Skjei knows pretty much every player on the preliminary roster and has played with a good number of them. Playing with the USNDTP helped Skjei transition better from high school hockey at Lakeville to college hockey at Minnesota.

In 14 games this season, Skjei has a goal and an assist, but he’s seen his ice time cut recently.

“I just need to play better, smarter D and limit the mistakes and I’ll be able to get my ice time back up,” Skjei said. “I deserved to get my ice time cut because I didn’t play well.”

The World Juniors tournament runs Dec. 26-Jan. 5 in Ufa, Russia, which would mean Skjei and Reilly would miss Minnesota’s games against Air Force and Boston College in late December.

While Gophers coach Don Lucia wouldn’t necessarily want to be without two of his defensemen, he knows playing in the tournament would be a big accomplishment.

“For these guys that are going right now, there’s no guarantee anybody’s going to make it. This is still a tryout situation,” Lucia said. “I know for our two defensemen, there’s nine there and they’re only going to keep seven so they’re both in a battle for a spot. We don’t want them worrying about that right now. We want them to focus on our team and this weekend and their final exams next weekend. We wish them all the best when they head out to New York a week from Sunday.”

Ready for a high-scoring series: When the No. 4 Gophers head to Colorado Springs this weekend, they’ll face a 19th-ranked Tigers team that scores the second-most goals in the WCHA at 3.69 per game. Then again, Colorado College also allows the second-most goals in the conference as it’s giving up 3.44 per game.

Minnesota is fifth in scoring at 3.27 goals per game and has the top scoring defense in the WCHA, allowing just 1.87 goals per game — thanks in large part to freshman goalie Adam Wilcox, recently named the National Division I Rookie of the Month for November.

The Gophers’ defense will have its hands full this Friday and Saturday against a high-octane Tigers offense.

“They’re always a good transition team. They’re always a speedy, skilled team up front,” Lucia said of Colorado College. “We’re going to have to make sure we play well defensively. We’re not exactly a high-scoring team, so our foundation has been goaltending and defense and special teams. That has to continue, especially when you’re on the road.”

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