Pair of men’s hockey players falling into enforcer role

Lou Raguse

During the seven-game stretch this season, Minnesota’s men’s hockey team played with defensemen Keith Ballard and Chris Harrington not in the lineup. Several players were forced into roles with which they were not yet comfortable.

Mistakes were made, and the Gophers went 1-5-1 during those four weeks.

In Saturday’s game against Michigan, Minnesota again found itself temporarily without the duo as Harrington sat in the penalty box with an obstruction-holding penalty, and 27 seconds later, Ballard received a game misconduct for checking from behind.

During the five-on-three penalty kill, defensemen P.J. Atherton and Jake Taylor joined senior Matt Koalska in holding off the Wolverines until the intermission. After the break, Judd Stevens and Barry Tallackson helped kill the first penalty.

The Gophers went on to hold Michigan scoreless throughout the rest of the Wolverines’ power play, but that five-on-three sequence was just the game-saving experience Atherton and Taylor needed to progress their roles within the team.

“As we sat in the locker room before the third period, we knew either we kill that penalty off or it was going to be a long battle to stay in the game,” Taylor said. “It was kind of a nice thing because we knew it was on our shoulders to help our team.”

In the night before, Taylor and Atherton were on the bench for long periods of time as the Gophers’ power play unit was on the ice.

In Saturday’s penalty sequence, Taylor and Atherton got their chance to shine. Taylor, at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds; and Atherton, at 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, were able to get around the rink fast enough and still provide the physical play necessary to block shots and make things easier for goaltender Kellen Briggs.

“We wanted to get through the five-on-three with more abrasive players,” said assistant coach Mike Guentzel, who works closely with the Gophers’ defensemen. “It let the young players get some confidence and give them a feel of what it’s like to be a big part of it.”

Becoming an enforcer for the team is a role into which both Atherton and Taylor are slowly slipping. Their games don’t revolve around offense, and their names scarcely make the games’ box scores.

“Everybody has a role on this team,” Atherton said. “I just like to fill my role by making the first pass and doing the little things – stop odd-man rushes, penalty kill, the unsung stuff – I enjoy doing that.”

Atherton observed that style of play as a freshman last season by pairing with then-senior Matt DeMarchi.

With DeMarchi and second-team All-American Paul Martin missing from this year’s roster, this year’s defensemen felt a lot of pressure to step up.

This season, Taylor faced a different kind of pressure. Unlike his upperclassmen teammates, Taylor, a freshman, hadn’t experienced consistent winning while wearing a Gophers jersey. And this season’s slow start was hard on him.

“For me, it was one of those things where I almost expected we were just going to win,” Taylor said. “But it’s always been a team thing, even when we are struggling. (Losing) actually might have built a little of our togetherness.”

Now that Ballard and Harrington are healthy and in the lineup, Taylor and Atherton can settle back into their more comfortable roles. They are happy to have their teammates back, but both admit that in the long run, the extended ice-time experience has helped them.

“It built confidence, and that’s what this game is all about,” Atherton said.