A flashy first half for Wisc. transplant Condon

by Austin Cumblad

Apparently, a Wisconsinite defecting to play hockey at the University of Minnesota is a near-mortal sin. ItâÄôs so rare that Nate Condon, a freshman from Wausau, is just the third player in Gophers history to hail from across the St. Croix River.
And you better believe he got plenty of grief for it.
âÄúIâÄôve got a lot of family, grandparents and everything that have graduated from [the University of Wisconsin,] Madison,âÄù Condon said. âÄúI got quite a bit [of flack].âÄù
Well deserved, perhaps, but Condon is in good company simply for being a Cheesehead in the Land of Lakes. Phil Kessel, now of the Toronto Maple Leafs and a star in his single season at Minnesota, is a native of Madison. But Condon shares a more substantive connection with Kessel âÄî oh, and some guy named Ryan Potulny âÄî as one of the last three players to record a five-point game.
Potulny was the last to do so before Condon, March 17, 2006. It was the barnburner to end all barnburners, an 8-7 overtime loss to St. Cloud State in the WCHA Final Five, the first of three straight losses to knock Minnesota clean out of the postseason. Potulny halted a Huskies run of four-straight goals in the second period and had a hat trick before the start of the third. He assisted Danny IrmenâÄôs 16th goal of the season, then tied the game in the final 15 seconds of regulation with his 38th.
Kessel, the last freshman to score five points, did it early in the 2005-06 season; a Nov. 11 game against Alaska Anchorage. Instead of four goals like Potulny, Kessel had four assists, and scored the gameâÄôs opener, incidentally the game-winner of a 9-0 schelacking.
Nearly four years passed. Then, on Oct. 30, Condon showed up at World Arena in Colorado Springs. HeâÄôd centered the second line for all of three games and was arguably still learning to play with wingers Jacob Cepis and Zach Budish.
Like anyone could tell.
The second line accounted for five goals in the GophersâÄô 9-4 drubbing of Colorado College, and Condon had his hand in all of them: two goals in MinnesotaâÄôs four-goal second period, assists on goals by Budish, Cepis and defenseman Cade Fairchild.
Five points. His name in the same sentence with Potulny and Kessel. If Condon realizes the significance of that night, he doesnâÄôt let on.
âÄúWe just seemed to be in the right spot that game. I donâÄôt know what it was.âÄù
HereâÄôs a hypothesis. Two years in the USHL, under two coaches that have since moved to the WCHA, prepared him to make an immediate difference on a young but talented Minnesota hockey team. Condon and fellow freshman Erik Haula are respectively tied for fifth and third on the team in points, and center the top two lines.
âÄúWeâÄôre asking two freshmen to play pivotal roles, not only from an offensive standpoint but a defensive standpoint,âÄù head coach Don Lucia said. Earlier he said, âÄúYou can tell that NateâÄôs played a couple years of juniors. The best thing we did with Nate was leave him for that second year of junior hockey so he could come in and feel more comfortable.âÄù
But like any team with half freshmen on its top two lines, Minnesota has struggled through bouts of inconsistency in the first half of the season. The Gophers are 9-7-2 overall, tied for fifth in the WCHA and ranked 19th in the country by USCHO.com. TheyâÄôve swept two conference road series, but have been swept by newcomer Nebraska Omaha and in-state rival Minnesota State.
All of MinnesotaâÄôs ten freshmen have struggled at times; plenty have also shown flashes of brilliance. CondonâÄôs shown a few even beyond his game in Colorado, such as his no-look backhand pass right onto CepisâÄô stick in SundayâÄôs 2-2 tie with No. 2 Minnesota Duluth. Cepis took one touch and beat the goaltender five-hole.
âÄúHeâÄôs got it,âÄù Cepis said. âÄúHe gets how to play. Center is a tough position.âÄù
The Gophers took three of four points from one of the best teams in the country. CondonâÄôs pass helped tie the game and secure that third point. But is it any surprise that a guy who shrugged off a five-point night did the same to his instinctive dish?
âÄúA lot of luck comes with that one âĦ I really didnâÄôt do that much work.âÄù