Myers: Nate Schmidt, Gophers found way to counter UNO's physical play
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MINNEAPOLIS - In two-plus seasons on the Gophers blue line, Nate Schmidt has established himself as a steady defenseman, and the go-to quote in the post-game media scrum.
In helping the Gophers salvage a split in their weekend series with Omaha on Saturday, Schmidt also sent a reminder out that even on a lake-sized ice sheet, and even in a shooting gallery like the U's offensive zone was, providing a defensive safety valve is as important as any element in this goofy game with the skates and sticks and ice.
The Gophers blasted out to a 3-0 lead and looked to have things well in hand, before settling for a more-dramatic-than-expected 3-2 victory, snapping the Mavericks' seven-game win streak. The Mavs, known for their size, played their typical, physical game, hitting the Gophers hard whenever they could. Too hard, in fact, in at least one case, as Omaha's Zahn Raubenheimer was tossed from the game in the second period after checking Nick Bjugstad from behind.
But for the Gophers, the game ended with a lesson that you can get beat up without getting beat.
"We've got some ice bags going and stuff, but that's how it is in the WCHA," said Erik Haula, who opened the scoring with a seeing-eye backhand through traffic and added and assist later. "That's the way it's going to be every night."
Although every night has not featured a Schmidt performance like this one, where he frustrated the Mavs in both ends of the ice, and chipped in with an assist for good measure. With his trademark mile-wide smile after the game, Schmidt admitted that staying high on the power play - to shoot from the blue line and to act as the last line of defense in preventing short-handed rushes - and collapsing around goalie Adam Wilcox in the defensive zone to be a stick-lifting pest, can be great fun on nights like this one. Part of that, Schmidt admitted, was just a game of survival against a Mavs defensive core more physically suited to posting up under the basket across the street at Williams Arena.
"I want to think I'm one of the bigger guys, but when you look around at the other team and their D, you realize you're not even close," Schmidt said, breaking into a laugh. "You look at our guys and we're 6-4 and 6-3, maybe 6-2. You look over at them and they're 6-8 and you're looking up when you're skating by them. So you have to use your height and weight to the best of your ability."
The night also featured what college hockey fans will know as "classic Dean Blais" as the Omaha coach, trailing 3-1 in the third, pulled his goalie with more than five minutes to play and the Mavs on a power play.
"That didn't surprise me," Gophers coach Don Lucia said. "They had the power play, so it was a good gamble when you're down two."
Blais used his timeout in the second period when the Gophers were absolutely buzzing, leading by three and looking capable of a blowout.
"I'm pretty happy that we came back, because for a while there I was thinking touchdown," Blais said. "They were moving pretty good and we knew that was going to happen...They have a lot of pride in that dressing room and we knew we were going to get their best shot for the first 10 minutes. We didn't know it was going to last 20."
With a healthy lead, and an extended power play, Lucia acknowledged that Schmidt became the defensive key, keeping the Mavs shooters frustrated just long enough to get a win, and two crucial points for a Gophers team that found itself in fourth place in the conference as of Saturday morning.
"Nate had such good energy tonight...that's why I moved him to that center spot because of his ability to skate and get up and down the rink," Lucia said.
And against Omaha's size, the center of the rink was a much safer, and more successful, place to be. As head headed for the elevator in a nice suit after the game, Schmidt gripped a sports drink in his hand, and just a few more inches up from his wrist was a nice-sized ice pack taped to his forearm. It did nothing to dim his smile.