Rookie defensemen prove worth early

Michael Rand

It’s been nearly two months since the Gophers hockey team began practice, and freshman Ben Clymer still hasn’t had a chance to catch his breath.
He and his defensive partner Mike Lyons — another freshman — have been getting a lesson on the fly for the past 10 games on how to keep players two or three years older than them from scoring.
So it’s understandable that Clymer was temporarily speechless when asked to reflect upon his college career to this point.
“Wow,” he said. “I don’t know if anything really sticks out. It’s gone pretty fast.”
But after thinking for a minute or two, Clymer had an answer.
“When we were out in the center of the ice after our first sweep, that was something special,” the Bloomington Jefferson graduate said. “It was a real neat experience.”
In a sense, his remarks are ironic. During the preseason, defense — particularly the youth of Minnesota’s blueliners — was seemingly the biggest obstacle to a successful season for the Gophers.
Some speculated that because of mistakes made by the young defensemen, Minnesota players would have fewer opportunities this season to gather in a circle and salute the crowd with their sticks.
Only three of Minnesota’s projected regular defensemen — Mike Crowley, Brian LaFleur and Jason Godbout — had played full seasons of college hockey.
But Clymer, Lyons, fellow freshman Ryan Trebil and sophomore Bill Kohn haven’t given people a reason to be skeptical so far.
Lyons, a former standout at St. Paul Johnson, couldn’t be happier.
“A lot of people were saying bad things about us,” he said. “It’s nice to prove people wrong.”
The Gophers have given up just 26 goals in 10 games this season, including a pair of 3-0 shutouts against Michigan Tech last weekend. Part of that comes from the solid goaltending of Steve DeBus and Erik Day. But an equal share goes to the defense, which has minimized its mistakes.
“When you start out with things, you have hopes,” Gophers coach Doug Woog said of his young defensive corps. “We needed them to do it. So far, I’ve been pleased.”
It hasn’t happened overnight, but the defense’s maturation process has been faster than most people predicted. The strides made between Minnesota’s 4-3 exhibition loss to Boston University and the Michigan Tech series last weekend are noticeable.
“It’s obviously a big step between high school and college. Each of us just had to be mentally prepared and realize that there would be times we’d make stupid mistakes,” Clymer said. “It was nice to start with a team of (BU’s) caliber. I got fried a few times, but I learned from it.”
Clymer and Lyons began to flourish when they became defensive partners. Early in the season, Woog paired Clymer with Crowley and Lyons with Kohn.
The switch allowed each player to be more comfortable. Because Crowley and Clymer are offensive-minded defensemen, they benefit from having a stay-at-home style defender like Lyons or Kohn as a partner.
“When you play with Crowley, you have to realize that for all intents and purposes, he’s really not a defenseman,” Clymer said. “He moves the puck into the zone so well. I wasn’t going to try and rival an All-American to rush the puck up the ice.”
Lyons said he and Clymer are a good match.
“Benny’s a great player and I have confidence in him,” he said. “We’re a perfect complement for each other.”
Clymer and Lyons admitted that they still have a lot to learn, and one of their biggest tests could come this weekend at Northern Michigan. Although the Wildcats are just 2-9-1, they are a rugged, hard-hitting team on their home ice.
The team departed on its bus trip to Marquette, Mich., on Thursday morning.
Crowley said he’s not worried about how the freshmen will handle their first road trip to the Upper Peninsula.
When asked if he had offered any words of wisdom to Clymer or Lyons on how to handle Northern Michigan, Crowley replied, “No, not yet. But I’m sure I’ll have time on the bus — too much time.”