Rasmussen fights midseason funk

Michael RandStaff

He was drafted No. 7 overall by the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres last year, making him the highest pick from the college ranks. He had 48 points as a freshman. Earlier this season, he almost single-handedly led the Gophers hockey team to a win over defending national champion Michigan.
But he has scored just one goal in his last 11 games. He doesn’t have a point in Minnesota’s last seven games against teams with winning records. He’s taken several penalties in recent weeks that he calls “inexcusable.”
The contradictions between the first and second set of accomplishments have frustrated Gophers fans, coaches and his fellow teammates.
But no one is stinging more than Erik Rasmussen. He’s like a boxer, eyes closed, middle of the ring. He’s flailing and lunging, but there’s no one else around. He’s only hitting himself. People set the bar high for him, but he raises it another couple of notches.
“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine,” Rasmussen said. “The person it affects most is me because I’m not living up to my own expectations.”
Ever since Rasmussen returned to the Gophers in early January after a dominating performance on the U.S. Junior National team, he hasn’t been the same.
The 6-foot-2 sophomore met with assistant coach Tom Ward about a month ago to address the problem. A few weeks back, he met with associate head coach Mike Guentzel. On Monday, he had a talk with head coach Doug Woog.
The early issue was a poor work ethic. What’s really frustrating Rasmussen is that he thought he corrected the problem a couple of weeks ago. He said he felt comfortable on the ice against Minnesota-Duluth and Northern Michigan, the Gophers’ last two opponents.
But little things happen. Rasmussen will set up a teammate with a nice pass and the puck will roll off the player’s stick. He’ll be two inches wide right with a shot, and the next time he’ll push it an inch too far left. It’s a vicious circle, Rasmussen said.
Case in point: Midway through the second period of last Friday’s game against UMD, a long pass from Mike Crowley slid under Rasmussen’s stick, ending a breakaway chance. Later in the shift, Rasmussen made a bad clearing pass and the Bulldogs almost scored off the miscue.
A few minutes later, Rasmussen left the Gophers bench to join a scuffle — an automatic five-minute major penalty and an accompanying game misconduct. That was the end of his Friday, and the suspension carried over to Saturday’s game as well.
After the series, Woog was disappointed. “It’s not an easy thing to put together,” he said.
It’s not easy to understand why a team seems to play better without one of its most talented players. But entering the Gophers series against Colorado College this weekend, the team is 7-1 without Rasmussen in the lineup and 14-10 with him.
Hence, the Monday meeting.
“We just talked about what he thought I needed to do, and what I thought I needed to do,” Rasmussen said. “He just told me to keep working. It was a good meeting.”
For the sake of Minnesota’s post-season aspirations, the team had better hope the get-together was productive.
During the playoffs, teams need all of their top players to perform at a high level.
“He’s the best forward on the team,” junior Casey Hankinson said. “We need all of our guys playing well.”
Rasmussen knows it. And the more he thinks about it, the more the pressure builds.
“The pressure is my responsibility,” he said. “In order for us to be successful in the playoffs, I have to produce.”
What he needs right now is a break — a rebound that falls right on his stick, a shot deflecting in the net off of someone’s shin pad. Something.
“If I keep working hard, things are going to happen,” Rasmussen said.
At the thought of enjoying some good fortune this weekend against CC, Rasmussen relaxed. A sense of calm moved across his face. And he allowed his shoulders to rest instead of trying to carry the weight of the world on them.