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Updated: January 8th, 2013 10:56pm
Myers: Unusual suspects leading way as Gophers' surge continues

Myers: Unusual suspects leading way as Gophers' surge continues

by Jess Myers
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- If the Minnesota Gophers men's hockey team is to make a second-half run - and it looks as if it is in the process of doing just that - coach Don Lucia has preached the need for the "usual suspects" step up. By that, he means Nick Bjugstad, Kyle Rau, Zach Budish, and when he's healthy, Erik Haula.

With Haula out of the lineup because of a hand injury and with defenseman Mike Reilly playing a limited role after a whirlwind trip to Russia for USA Hockey, it would have been a perfect time for those other usual suspects to deliver with second-ranked Notre Dame visiting Mariucci Arena on Tuesday night.

But in a carefully played 4-1 victory over the Irish, it was some unusual suspects making the difference instead for the top-ranked Gophers.

With Rau and Bjugstad mostly shut down by the defensive-minded Irish, the Gophers got goals from second-liners Nate Condon and Sam Warning, and from Christian Isackson while he was centering the fourth line.

As if the Gophers' top-line offense, solid blueline play and surprisingly good goaltending weren't enough for opponents, the emergence of second- and third-line contributors is the latest wrinkle.

"It's about depth, and their depth was better than ours today," said Irish coach Jeff Jackson, after a game in which his team looked very much like one that hadn't played in three weeks. "I thought we played well at times, but they're a good team."

Lucia, fully aware that Notre Dame might be rusty, planned a quick-strike attack designed to pounce early. Condon made that plan work only 81 seconds into the game, first delivering a hit to Lucia's son, Mario, who plays for the Irish, then snapping a low shot past Notre Dame goalie Steven Summerhays.

"We knew going in that they hadn't played since before Christmas. That was our advantage," Don Lucia said. "The first 10 minutes was an important part of the game where we were able to score a couple goals and play with a lead. Nate Condon did a nice job of replacing Erik (Haula) at center."

For his part, Condon claims he didn't know he had checked his coach's kid until later, but laughed about it, and relished his role in the decisive victory.

"Any time we can get scoring out of multiple lines it's going to be a lot easier on us," said Condon, who scored in his third consecutive game. "(Bjugstad's) line struggled a little bit tonight and didn't get the bounces they needed. Luckily, our line had a good night and put some in the net."

Last season, at the start of his freshman year, Warning burst from the gate like a player destined to become a usual suspect. He then cooled off but still finished with respectable numbers. His sophomore season also started well, before a shoulder injury kept him out of nine games in October and November.

On Tuesday, Warning scored and also assisted on Condon's goal, giving him five points in the Gophers' past three games.

"Warning is starting to score," Lucia said. "He missed that month with an injury and he's a guy that has a good shot and we see him score a lot in practice. We just need to get him shooting more."

Haula walked around the concourse on Tuesday, wearing a hard plastic brace on one hand as he recovers. He won't be available this weekend when the Gophers play host to last-place Alaska Anchorage in a two-game series.

Sounds as if Lucia's team has yet another opportunity for some unusual suspects to make their presence felt.

Jess Myers covers the Wild and college hockey for 1500ESPN.com. He is a member of the editorial advisory board for USA Hockey Magazine.
Email Jess | @JessRMyers
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