Gophers’ Rau healthy and scoring big again

MINNEAPOLIS — After a stellar freshman season, University of Minnesota forward Kyle Rau is hoping to take the next step during his sophomore year.

Now that he’s fully healthy again, Rau appears ready to do just that.

As a freshman, Rau was second on the team in points with 18 goals and 25 assists in 40 games. Though the 2012-13 season is still young, Rau has four goals and five assists in nine games.

Much of that production has come despite an ankle injury that limited Rau’s effectiveness. It wasn’t until last weekend that Rau said his ankle was pain free. The result of being fully healthy was a two-goal game in Minnesota’s 4-0 win Friday over Alaska-Anchorage.

“I thought Kyle Rau, it was his best weekend,” Gophers head coach Don Lucia said Wednesday. “He had a little ankle issue that he finally, I think for the first time all year, feels 100 percent with. I think we saw that last weekend. … Obviously, we need that because he’s one of our top players.”

Rau has been the top player pretty much everywhere he’s been. He was a key member of two state championship teams at Eden Prairie High School, scoring the game-winning goal against Duluth East to win the 2011 Class AA title in triple-overtime. As a senior, Rau won the Minnesota Mr. Hockey award as the state’s best prep player. He was also selected in the third round (91st overall) in the 2011 NHL draft by the Florida Panthers.

Instead of making the jump straight from high school to college, Rau spent a short time playing junior hockey with Sioux Falls of the USHL. He scored 10 points in 11 regular-season games with the Stampede and went on to lead the league in playoff scoring with 12 points in 10 games.

“That helped a lot,” Rau said of playing in the USHL, even for a brief period. “Just to get confidence that I could play with those guys and move on to the next level from high school (made) the jump a little bit easier from juniors to college rather than high school to college.”

While Rau’s older brother, Chad, opted to leave the state of Minnesota after high school to play at Colorado College, Kyle knew for a long time that he wanted to be a Gopher. The Rau family had season tickets for Gophers hockey games for years, and Kyle Rau went to as many games at Mariucci Arena as he could.

Now, Rau is one of the main reasons Minnesota fans are filling the seats at Mariucci to cheer on the third-ranked Gophers. The thought of playing elsewhere never crossed Rau’s mind. He said his older brother never tried to sway his decision on which college to choose.

“He actually said, ‘Do whatever you want,'” Kyle said of Chad. “He knew how much I wanted to come here, so he didn’t try to sway me with his opinions. He just laid it all out there for me. He helped a lot, though.”

Chad Rau made his NHL debut last season with the hometown Minnesota Wild — and scored a goal in his first career game last January against Dallas. Kyle and the Gophers had an afternoon game that day, so he and his parents, Mike and Lynne, were able to race across the Twin Cities after Kyle’s game to watch his brother and the Wild at Xcel Energy Center.

Kyle even had seats on the glass for that game. Not a bad way to take in his brother’s debut.

The Rau brothers keep in touch, although it’s tougher now that Chad is playing for the Houston Aeros of the AHL during the NHL lockout. When they do get together, Kyle said there’s not much talk about the sport they play.

“We don’t really talk about hockey that much, just because it’s what we do,” Kyle Rau said. “Once we’re together, it’s talking about something else like fishing. Sometimes he’ll text me if he gets to watch our games and gives me a little pointer or something, which is nice. I respect what he has to say.”

Rau and the Gophers entered this season as one of the best teams in college hockey. Minnesota advanced to the Frozen Four last year and returned much of the talent from that team — including Rau.

As the Gophers prepare to host rival Wisconsin this weekend, they do so with a 6-2-1 record and the No. 3 ranking in college hockey. Finally healthy again, Rau is producing as he did during last year’s standout freshman season, during which he was named to the All-WCHA Rookie team.

But Rau said his goals for the 2012-13 season aren’t personal ones. He’s not concerned about how many goals he scores or whether he leads the team in points. He has bigger things in mind.

“I don’t really make individual goals, but more team (goals). Just to try to get back to the Frozen Four is obviously something every team in the nation wants to do,” Rau said. “We’ve just got to keep working to get there.”

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