Reilly reaps rewards of rehabilitation

Forward Connor Reilly leads the Gophers with 11 goals this season.

Gophers forward Connor Reilly races the puck down the ice at Mariucci Arena on Saturday.

Alex Tuthill-Preus

Gophers forward Connor Reilly races the puck down the ice at Mariucci Arena on Saturday.

Ben Gotz

Two knee injuries and surgeries robbed Connor Reilly of plenty.

He missed the entire first year of his college hockey career and was frustrated for most of the following one.

And though Reilly’s skating and confidence were shaky at times, one thing always remained.

“He never lost his shot,” head coach Don Lucia said.

And now, Reilly’s shot is shining.

Honed in the basement of the Reilly family home in Chanhassen during shooting contests with his brothers and Gophers teammates, Mike and Ryan Reilly, Connor’s shot has given him the team lead in goals with 11.

In the Gophers’ last 10 games, Reilly has scored eight goals to go along with four assists. He has recorded a point in every game but one since Nov. 28.

“I would say it’s [the] right place, right time,” Reilly said. “I would say it’s been a little bit of a reward after what I’ve been through the past couple years and just getting back from two major knee surgeries.”

Overcoming the setbacks

Lucia said Reilly has been a goal-scorer his whole life.

It just took him longer to prove it in college.

During his senior year of high school at Holy Angels, he scored 22 goals and 63 points in just 25 games.

In his final year of junior hockey, he tallied 35 goals and 86 points in 54 games.

But then, Reilly and his knees hit their first setback.

On March 6, 2012, Reilly’s season with the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League officially ended with a surgery on his left knee.

But even with two screws added, Reilly was expected to recover in time for his freshman season at Minnesota.

Another knee injury in September 2012, after Reilly “slipped and fell awkwardly,” according to a University of Minnesota press release, took that away.

“It was devastating just trying to come back from those,” Reilly said. “It was an absolute battle.”

Reilly laced up and skated the next season, but he still didn’t recover fully. 

He recorded six goals and six assists, but Reilly was largely relegated to the team’s lower lines.

“I know last year was a frustrating year at times for him because he wasn’t at the pace [that] he hoped to be,” Lucia said, “and that’s something I told him at the beginning last year, ‘You’ll get better as the year goes on, but the reality [is] it’s going to take you a full year to find out how much you can recover to.’”

For Reilly, being unable to physically play to his potential was difficult at times.

“I was disappointed because I wanted to be at the level I was before, but I was nowhere near that, and I couldn’t control that because it was just going to take more time,” Reilly said.

To reach that end, Reilly trained himself all summer. Mike and Ryan helped, pushing him in the weight room, on the bike and up hills.

“Mike always saw it in me,” Reilly said. “He knew I had the ability to maybe score some goals. I know Ryan did, too.”

Coming back, Reilly expected himself to be a different player his redshirt sophomore year. Lucia did, too, putting him on the team’s top two lines the first week of the season.

Reilly was also part of the team’s power play the opening weekend, scoring his first goal of the season.

Mentors spur change

Reilly’s promotion didn’t last after the first weekend, and he moved back to the team’s third line.

But a sit-down with assistant coach Grant Potulny helped propel him back up the line chart.

Reilly and Potulny went over game film together, looking at his performances in recent games.

He said watching himself with Potulny helped him realize he needed to be quicker to pucks and stronger when he had them.

“The message was essentially, ‘You need to be better, we need more from you, you can bring more,’” Reilly said.

Since that meeting, Reilly has contributed a point in every game except one.

In addition, Reilly altered his thought process.

He met with mental coach Shaun Goodsell and texted him every day for a month.

Before practice, Reilly would tell Goodsell not what he hoped to accomplish that day, but what he would.

“I started changing my vocabulary … [from] ‘I hope or I wish’ … to ‘I can or I will,’” Reilly said. “[It’s a] mindset of believing in myself and saying I will do something and I will make a difference.”

Reilly’s change in vocabulary coincided with his improved scoring and emergence as a threat for the Gophers.

“I think he’s just building more confidence, and I think the coaches have a little more trust in him,” Mike Reilly said. “That’s a guy we can count on night in and night out.”

For Connor, that chance, the chance to be able to make an impact every night, is what he worked his way back for.

“It was obviously such a long road at the time. I just knew I wanted to get back and play to my abilities and potential,” Reilly said. “… Yeah, there were times I was down. I told myself I wasn’t a good hockey player, but deep down I kept believing in myself, and because of that, it allowed me to get to where I am today.”

|Check out Reilly’s highlights from Saturday’s game against Wisconsin here|