Myers: Questions about goaltending? Gophers' Wilcox is answering them
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MINNEAPOLIS - "But what about that rookie goalie?" seems to be the one question people still pose about the Gopher hockey team's viability come March and April.
They've answered all of the other queries, regarding offensive prowess and defensive contributions and staying generally healthy and the ability to win non-conference games. But the goalie, the freshman from South St. Paul who emerged at the team's top netminder after a relatively short competition in October, is still the factor that makes folks wonder if one bad game in the NCAA playoffs will be able to sink the top-ranked Gophers' aspirations of hanging a sixth national title banner.
We're a long way from one-and-done elimination games, but if the work Adam Wilcox did on Friday, in perhaps his most pressure-filled game as a collegian, is any indication, die-hard Gopher fans can at least start browsing at non-refundable flights to Pittsburgh, site of the 2013 Frozen Four.
North Dakota's renowned offense, after a slow first period, did its normal job of zipping the puck up and down the rink, using every inch of Mariucci Arena's seemingly endless ice sheet. The nickname-free NoDaks whipped the puck at Wilcox 27 times, and headed down the tunnel after the final horn with little more than a closer-than-the-score-appears 5-1 loss to show for it.
Save for a power play shot by North Dakota that bounced off a Gophers defenseman and into the "U" net in the second period, Wilcox was perfect. Trying to solve the opposing goalie got so frustrating for North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol that he briefly tried playing without a goalie of his own. With four minutes to play and his team down by three goals, Hakstol pulled starter Clarke Saunders in a desperate attempt to generate more offense. It didn't work, and Erik Haula sealed the win with an empty-netter.
If you're a senior for North Dakota, this was your 16th career game versus the Gophers. But the kid between the pipes was a new wrinkle they hadn't dealt with before.
"He's a good goaltender, and I thought he was good tonight," said Hakstol after the game. "He's obviously given them good goaltending and he gave them some key saves tonight at critical times."
But will he hit a wall? Will this kid, more used to the rigors of high school and junior hockey, succumb to the pressure of playing every game, under the spotlight that comes with standing in the Gophers' goal crease? Actually, Wilcox says the time he spent playing juniors in Nebraska last season is his non-very-secret weapon as the Gophers took over the top spot in the WCHA standings on Friday.
"It's kind of nice because last year in juniors we had two or three games a week and I played the last 25 games straight," Wilcox said. "That's kind of what I like, to get in a rhythm that keeps you going. Staying in every game actually helps."
When asked about the risk of over-playing a goalie - especially a young one - Gophers coach Don Lucia always references the University of Michigan, which went from four successful years of Steve Shields to four successful years of Marty Turco to a successful run with Josh Blackburn to a successful run with Al Montoya to a successful run with Shawn Hunwick, all without missing a beat, or missing a trip to the NCAA tourney.
"Michigan played the same goalie for 16 years," Lucia often jokes, implying that if your kid is stopping the puck and your team is winning, don't mess with it.
Watching plenty of Gophers games over the years, Wilcox had seen plenty of North Dakota and its seemingly always-dangerous forwards on TV and as a spectator, but admitted that it was something different at ice level, seeing those green sweaters coming at him for the first time.
"It was weird," Wilcox said. "Growing up and seeing them across the border, you're kind of in shock seeing them across the ice from you, but once the game starts it's just like another game, and you know they're going to come a little harder to the net."
For Wilcox part, he's doing what he considers routine work in goal, making the first save more often than not, and letting his experienced crew of defensemen clear the rebounds and the traffic in front of him. And the rookie knows very well that much of the responsibility in earning a WCHA title and a potential trip to Pittsburgh rest on his shoulders, which is fine.
"I know we have a good team, so as long as I'm doing my job, we're going to go as far as we can go," he said on Friday, after perhaps the biggest win of his young career. "We've got the team to go all the way."