Gophers Hockey: Week of rest, learning from Olympics

Matt Christians - SB Nation

Minnesota may be idle this weekend, but that doesn't stop the hockey.

Walk around Mariucci Arena enough times and you are sure to come across it. Amongst all the murals, history and honors is a shrine to Minnesota's Olympians; those that represented the red, white and blue at the highest level.

The Gophers and Olympics have historically gone hand in hand. The program churns out Olympians. Minnesota has been represented by a player or coach in every Winter Olympics hockey tournament since 1948, which includes 9 players and head coach Herb Brooks on the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" United States squad that won gold in Lake Placid.

Even the Olympic-sized (200x100 feet) ice at Mariucci Arena, which opened in 1993, hearkens back to a time when amateurs ruled the events. While the days of college hockey players going from battling in the WCHA straight into the Olympics is long gone - NHL players have been attending since 1998 - the Gophers have 4 players (3 American and 1 Austrian) in the men's tournament.

That aspect has current players excited to watch the conclusion of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

"Obviously, the hockey is top-notch phenomenal, said junior forward Travis Boyd. "I'm really looking forward to watching how the NHL players do on the Olympic sheet, the bigger sheet like we have at Mariucci. It should be a lot of fun."

Minnesota (21-4-5, 10-2-2-0 Big Ten) is idle this weekend, having come off one of its better weekends. The second-ranked Gophers swept a Michigan team which is currently in the NCAA Tournament at home with 5-3 and 4-1 wins. The wins extend its conference points lead over Wisconsin to 7 (meaning, with 3 points up for grabs each game, the Badgers can't take over first place this weekend.)

Eight Minnesota players scored while sophomore goaltender Adam Wilcox made 28 consecutive saves Saturday.

Having time off when things are going well could be detrimental for the first Big Ten stretch run, but that isn't how the Gophers are looking at it.

"It will be a good break for Adam at this point, Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said following Saturday's win. "The whole team can kind of take a deep breath right now."

In a way, that's true.  The team gets a chance without a series to regroup and get healthy for its last six regular season games.  A couple players have been banged up or currently are. Forward Tom Serratore just returned to the lineup against the Wolverines after being out for a couple weeks while Minnesota has been without freshman defenseman Michael Brodzinski since January 24th.

Lucia believes Brodzinski will be ready to return in time for the Gophers' next game against Penn State on February 28.

Being off also lets the Gophers relax and watch the Olympics. What should be a gameday is instead a snow day with a game. The United States faces Canada in a semifinal and rematch of the 2010 Gold Medal Game Friday morning at 11 AM Central time. It's a little later than normal the 2 and 6:30 AM stats at Sochi, which is good news for Justin Holl, who said that he would "probably be in bed" for the latter.

He did, however, hope to watch "hopefully a couple games."

The Olympics aren't just about hockey. There are other sports a group entirely made up of Americans can watch, and that don't get the attention more than once every four years.

"I really love watching the Olympics for the sports you never see on TV. Last night I watched women's luge and it's something that you don't see," Boyd said. "It's fun to see those things for me.

"I watch luge and I was saying to myself, ‘I wish I could try that.' That looks like a lot of fun being able to rip around at 85 miles per hour, but for me I just love watching things that I usually don't get the chance to see."

At the same time, these are hockey players and that is where the lessons are. Whether it is dreaming about going from wearing the "M" to the red, white and blue - several players have already represented the US in international competition and Lucia was the head coach of this past US World Junior squad - seeing a guy like Phil Kessel, who leads the team with 8 points, or Blake Wheeler heavily contribute in the Olympics helps.

The team even got to meet Minnesota legend John Mayasich, a member of 3 U.S. Olympic teams that includes the 1960 "Forgotten Miracle" Gold Medal." before last Friday's game against Michigan.

Although some may want to be the next Gopher Olympians, Lucia did glean at least one lesson from last Saturday's US game against Russia and pass it back to his team.

"What great talent on the ice, and the will to win when you see (Ryan) McDonaugh and (Ryan) Kesler taking a couple of those missiles and blockable shots. That doesn't feel good," he said. "We talked to our guys about that. I think I said, ‘that's $9.7 million in blocked shots between those two.'

"If they can do it, we can do it."

--

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

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