In its last six games, the Gophers men’s hockey team has scored more goals and brought the puck into the offensive zone with more efficiency than in any other stretch of the season.
A major reason for the apparent turnaround has been the play of forward-turned-defenseman Erik Westrum.
The sophomore from Apple Valley, Minn., is in the midst of a very prosperous season on the blue-line after moving back from forward early in the season.
“Actually, I like defense,” Westrum said. “We’ve had some wins and ties since I’ve been back there. We get the puck up, and I’ve been able to put a couple points on the board, which helps the team.
“Whatever’s best for the team is best for me.”
Westrum often brings the puck up the ice like his breezers are on fire, allowing his teammates to get into position and not worry about getting the puck into the offensive zone.
His puck handling and offensive ability can sometimes be described as jaw-dropping.
Westrum scored the first Minnesota goal during Friday’s 6-4 loss. He brought the puck into the zone on the left side, beat three Badgers, went around the net, passed to Doug Meyer who gave it right back, waited for Wisconsin goaltender Graham Melanson to fall, then roofed it for the goal. Westrum followed that up with a short-handed goal.
“Wow,” coach Doug Woog said of Westrum’s bang-bang goal. “I mean, wow. That first goal was phenomenal. Then, with the short-handed goal, there were some great performances out there.”
Westrum admitted that he got the idea for his weaving in the offensive zone for his first goal from a Wayne Gretzky highlight tape he watched prior to the game.
He must have a photographic memory, because earlier this season in a game at Colorado College, Westrum pulled off a spectacular spin-o-rama in front of the crease which he credited to a move he picked up from a video game.
Regardless of where Westrum finds his motivation, one thing is becoming clear: He’s got the agility and puck-handling skills of a nimble forward, coupled with the physical presence and play-making savvy of a veteran defensemen.
“When you’re back there, you see the ice a lot better,” Westrum said. “When you’re a forward, you’ve got one, maybe two seconds to make a decision. On defense, you come out, beat one guy and they’re holding up their guys for you.”
Westrum has been able to pick and choose his spots to attack, and is allotted a little more time to make decisions. He has made the most of his extra couple of seconds with the puck.
The Gophers offense is streaking, scoring more goals and controlling the play in the offensive zone with a lot more authority than before Westrum was made a defenseman.
The defense, and Westrum, are a real reason why the Gophers are undergoing a scoring renaissance.
“The defense has been playing really well,” senior captain Wyatt Smith said. “Putting Westrum back there gives you another chance to get the puck out.”