The Gophers don’t play another game until Feb. 8, when they begin a weekend series at St. Cloud State. When the season resumes, six of their final ten games will be out of town, including the Hockey City Classic against Wisconsin at Chicago’s Soldier Field on Sun., Feb. 17.
Three questions that need answers during the break:
Not only is this a time to step back and prepare for the stretch drive, it’s also an important moment in a busy season to answer key questions. Such as:
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1. Will this team be ready every night, especially in the first period (or two)?
That’s been an issue all season, some games more than others. Early on, the Gophers were simply (and obviously) not ready to go on Friday nights. Even though they won some of those series openers it was often an uphill battle until the games were well under way.
As recently as the Friday game against Minnesota State, the Gophers struggled to play consistently in their own end and get their forecheck going at the other end. They stormed back in the third period, only to lose the game with 44 seconds left. Even though they scored the first goal, the Mavericks outpaced them 2-0 the rest of the night. It was the first time all season that the Gophers lost after scoring the first goal. It was also their first loss on home ice.
The following night, Minnesota scored twice in the first period and cruised to a 4-1 win in Mankato, a game with an entirely different look and feel.
Being ready when the puck drops is critical. It’s something the coaches have harped on all season. It will be a reality when the team’s on-ice leadership makes sure every player understands the critical importance of a strong start every night.
Come playoff time, there won’t be any second chances.
2. Can Adam Wilcox continue to carry the mail every night?
The freshman goalie from South St. Paul stepped up early in the season, basically said “I’m the guy, let’s go!” and has walked the walk ever since. But it’s a long winter for a young goaltender, no matter how talented he is and these guys are, after all, student athletes – meaning there’s also a class schedule to honor.
Wilcox (right) plays the game with skill and verve. He’s a terrific athlete and skater. His challenge now is mental: can he maintain that inner sangfroid, that cold-blooded self-confidence and focus, that a goalie must have to backstop his team to a championship? The former South St. Paul Packer appears to have all the tools. In the Friday game against Minnesota State, he looked rattled a couple of times (although, in fairness, he wasn’t getting much help from the rest of the team).
With backup Adam Shibrowski healthy and itching to play, will head coach Don Lucia give Wilcox a night off sometime soon? It’s a tough call because there aren’t many games left, the easy part of the schedule is over and everything is on the line from here on out if the Gophers want to win their final WCHA McNaughton Cup. Look for Shibrowski to get a start soon after the season resumes if he’s going to get one at all. It wouldn’t be a bad idea for Wilcox to sit one out – and for the team to play as a unit in front of someone else once in awhile.
3. Is Erik Haula fully mended?
The answer is no. The hand injury Haula (right, below) sustained when he was tomahawked in the Boston College game is healing, slowly and painfully. The Finnish scoring machine has played through the pain after missing only three games and isn’t about to sit out any more. The Gophers need his deft scoring touch, too, and Lucia has tried playing him at right wing, something the natural center has rarely done.
Haula’s touch is clearly not back to its old magic yet and nearly two weeks away from game action is helping the healing process. The fact that he has played at all has been inspirational to the team, which is well aware not only of how painful the injury is but of how important Haula’s contributions have been.
Happily, Haula’s infirmity hasn’t handcuffed Minnesota’s ability to light the lamp. Other players have stepped up and now we’re seeing first-line scoring moves from players like Justin Holl and others. The scorers need to score, though, and the pressure has been on for Nate Condon and Nick Bjugstad to find the net. Condon has responded. Bjugstad is still looking for the consistent scoring that his skill and size say he ought to have.
One thing the Gophers have enjoyed all season is depth. Now they’ve ripened their secondary scoring skills so that even when a top player like Haula is slowed, others can often respond with points. Still, a 100 percent Haula is important to this team’s championship hopes – although even an 80 percent Haula is a lot better than the best that many other teams can offer.
We’ll be back with Gophers hockey action Feb. 8-9 from St. Cloud in what should be a tremendous series. Join me and the rest of our world-class FOX Sports North hockey crew from the Granite City as the Gophers’ stretch drive begins!