Five for ’15: Ohio State

Ben Gotz

Three points out of the standings for first place, the Gophers schedule seems to offer a bit of a reprieve with a match-up against the fifth place Ohio State Buckeyes.

The Gophers may be catching the Buckeyes at a bad time though. At least for them.

"They’re healthy now," senior forward Sam Warning said. "They weren’t that healthy the last time they played us and they’ve won three out of their last four."

Head coach Don Lucia said he told Ohio State head coach Steve Rohlik when the Buckeyes visited Mariucci that he would find out a lot about his roster in the coming weeks. Now, Rohlik's will get to test his healthy roster's prowess against the Gophers.

"Every win's critical now at this time of the year," senior forward Seth Ambroz said. "I think we’ve got the ability to make a really nice run here."

Here's five more storylines surrounding the men's hockey team this week, the first two having little to no connection to college hockey at all:

1. Return of Leopold

On Monday, the Minnesota Wild completed a trade that brought defenseman Jordan Leopold, a Hobey Baker winner and national champion, back to Minnesota.

Lucia said he hadn't gotten the chance to get in touch with his former player yet, but said he would soon. Either way, he was happy Leopold had the opportunity to finish his career in Minnesota.

"You don’t last like Jordan has, the amount of years in the National Hockey League, without being a good person and obviously a good player, a good locker room guy," Lucia said.

He mentioned that if Leopold decided to leave school a year early for the NHL, the Gophers probably wouldn't have won a national championship without him.

"He was one of those guys where you walk in a locker room, you wouldn’t know whether Jordan was our best player or our seventh defenseman," Lucia said. "He was such a quality person, and that’s what you win with."

Leopold's return made headlines Monday because a letter his daughter wrote to Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher, urging him to bring her father home, went public.

"When you’re in the business that we’re in, you can relate to it a little bit," Lucia said. "With your kids and your family and your wife, what they have to go through, and that kind of gets forgotten sometimes."

2. Minnesota State Hockey Tournament

Before heading to Ohio State over the weekend, a few Gophers will try to soak in some of the action of the Minnesota high school hockey tournament.

Lucia said he was looking forward to watching his nephew play Wednesday. Ambroz said he tried to watch his alma mater New Prague in the early afternoon, but the television at Mariucci wasn't working.

"Everyone grows up being a big fan of the state tournament," Ambroz said, even though he admitted his biggest memory was how good the mini donuts in the stands were. "It’s fun to see what’s going on."

Lucia said he remembered how big the tournament was in his community growing up in Grand Rapids, Minn.

"It was kind of the event of March," Lucia said. "The students all wanted school to get shut down for a couple days and head down to the big city."

One thing about the tournament hasn't changed even since Lucia was involved. Gopher alumni Lou Nanne will be covering his 51st tournament in Minnesota.

"I know my grandpa is going to hold that down," sophomore forward Vinni Lettieri said.

3. Slow Starts

The Gophers have come out of the gate slow their last four games, facing at least a 1-0 deficit in each.

"The first goal, you never want to dig yourself a hole right away," Ambroz said. "We always have a big stress on the first 10 minutes."

The Gophers are 14-5-1 when they score the first goal, but 4-6-2 when their opponent gets on the board first.

"It gets to a point where you start digging holes, you’re not going to be able to climb out of a lot of them," Ambroz said. "It’s definitely a big emphasis on us coming out strong right away the first 10 minutes."

4. Saturday Slumps

The Gophers are also working towards correcting another recent trend: playing well the first game of a series but dropping the next.

"Last couple second games haven’t been our best," Warning said. "The night before we showed we can be a great team but we’ve just got to carry that into Saturday’s game."

In their last three series, the Gophers are 3-0 in their first game, outscoring their opponents 13-6. In the next game of the past three series, the team is 1-2 and opponents are outscoring them 8-7.

"You’ve got to be able to put two games on top of each other," Ambroz said. "We’ve been showing up one night and then been struggling the next." 

5. Connor Reilly Update

Redshirt sophomore forward Connor Reilly still hasn't skated after being injured in Madison last month.

If Reilly can't skate in the next week or two, he may be shelved for the rest of the season.

"If he doesn’t skate for another week or two, you’re just getting to that point where you know, it would be hard to get thrown back in," Lucia said. "If he can’t come back until playoff time it’s hard to be thrown into that type of situation."

Lucia said Reilly's injury puts pressure on the team's third line of sophomores Justin Kloos, Taylor Cammarata, and Lettieri. If Reilly doesn't come back, the trio are close to locked in as top-nine forwards.

"I think Kloos’ line is going to be the key from here on out for us," Lucia said. "If we want to be the type of the team we want to be, you have to have three pretty balanced lines."