Gophers Hockey: Minnesota is keeping an eye on teammates abroad

Mike Reilly is waking up early to watch the 2014 World Juniors a year after playing in the tournament - Minnesota Athletics

With head coach Don Lucia and players Brady Skjei and Hudson Fasching representing Team USA in Sweden, the Minnesota players and coaches training in Minneapolis are paying attention to the WJC in addition to focusing on this weekend's Mariucci Classic.

Tuesday's media availability overlapped with the end of Team USA's 3-2 loss to Canada, meaning University of Minnesota associate head coach Mike Guentzel, who was watching before, missed freshman forward Hudson Fasching (Los Angeles Kings draft pick) set up the American's second goal.

"Good coaching," he joked.

The Team USA coaching staff, of course, is led by Gopher head coach Don Lucia. Fasching has 4 points (2G-2A) in 4 games while playing on the third line. Sophomore defenseman Brady Skjei (New York Rangers) is being used on the team as a shutdown defenseman.

With Lucia, Fasching and Skjei in Malmo, Sweden for the 2014 World Junior Championships, Guentzel. along with assistant coach Grant Potulny, is in charge. Minnesota (12-2-2, 3-0-1-0 Big Ten) faces Colgate (7-9-2, 5-3-1 ECAC) this Friday in the Mariucci Classic. Depending on that result, the top-ranked Gophers will then play either RPI (8-6-4, 3-3-3 ECAC) or WCHA leaders Ferris State (14-2-3, 10-0-2 WCHA) the next night.

Guentzel and the rest of the Gophers working off the rust have a lot to focus upon this week. The team has been off since a 3-2 win against Michigan State on December 7 and hasn't played a game in Mariucci Arena since November 30.

And there is the side focus of watching their teammates and head coach abroad in the World Juniors, which run until January 5.

"Obviously it's our country. We have a group of players on the team, Don (Lucia) is coaching the team so it's a big deal," said Guentzel, who has been an assistant for both Doug Woog and Lucia. "Grant (Potulny) was there last year and Mikey Reilly won a gold medal so there's some pride amongst our guys that have played and worn that jersey. They want to see the team do well."

Reilly, who lamented before the tournament about being too old this year (the 20 year-old sophomore was born in 1993 and misses the cut - the 2014 WJC is for players born in 1994 and later), has been keeping an eye on the tournament. The Columbus Blue Jackets draft pick is one of two current Minnesota players - Kyle Rau being the other - to have played for Team USA in the World Juniors.

That experience wearing the red, white and blue gives him a different view.

"They're both doing well so far," Reilly, who leads Big Ten defensemen with 7 goals, said about his teammates. "Tough one (Tuesday against Canada), but I'm sure they'll regroup and take a day or two to just get back and get re-energized for the quarterfinal game."

Team USA is still alive for a second gold medal despite losing to Canada in the Group A finale. Lucia's other squad faces Russia in the quarterfinals Thursday morning in the United States (5 AM in Minneapolis).

"(Last year) we lost to Russia and Canada so we didn't get a free pass to the medal round like some of the teams," said Reilly. "We were definitely fired up for that quarterfinal game so that was big on our success for winning it all."

This time Reilly is the one waking up early to watch Team USA. While the distraction is welcome, the Minnesota players and coaching staff still know for them what is the task at hand. There is a potential match-up with the second-ranked Bulldogs on Saturday along with getting ready for Big Ten play. After this weekend, the team will have 16 conference games.

The Gophers will be down to five defensemen and without both its head coach and two top players, but that isn't stopping them.

"These are the games you really have to be ready for," Guentzel said about playing Colgate and the other Mariucci Classic teams. "I'm sure it is a highlighted game on their schedule, coming into Mariucci and playing in a great venue and supposedly the #1 team in the country. We have to respect our opponent and give our best effort."

--

Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation and College Hockey News. You can also follow him on Twitter --

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