Greetings from Dinkytown where the weather is below zero and practice was a lot more calm than its neighbor to East.
The Gophers practiced Wednesday at Ridder Arena to prepare for Michigan (10-7-0, 2-1-0-0 Big Ten) this weekend on the NHL-size ice at historic Yost Arena. Returning to Big Ten play - where all but two remaining games will be contested for the 10-5-1 University of Minnesota - means there is more than pride and Pairwise on the line.
The players are aware that playing for points is a different animal. It is one which begins with the team defending its regular season crown on the road against the Wolverines, picked to finish second in the conference and coming off a Great Lakes Invitational (GLI) title without four key players. Michigan is 7-2-0 at Yost this season and 8-2 since November 14th.
And to go with conference play is a healthy roster. It seems that every week brings questions about injuries and timetables, but Minnesota is finally healthy and available for the most part. Sophomore forward Hudson Fasching and freshman defenseman Ryan Collins were back from the World Juniors for Saturday's win over RIT. Freshman forward Leon Bristedt arrived back to Minneapolis late Tuesday after helping Sweden to a fourth-place. He participated in practice Wednesday with Travis Boyd, Seth Ambroz and the rest of the team.
Perhaps most importantly is the fact Brady Skjei is heathy and ready to return against Michigan.
"Brady's been cleared to play so he practiced full go yesterday. He's looked pretty good," head coach Don Lucia said about the junior defenseman. Skjei, who was injured December 6th against Michigan State, also practiced Wednesday.
The 2012 first round pick of the New York Rangers has 4 points (1G-3A) in 10 games after also earlier missing most of November with a separate injury. Not only is Skjei's return good for the defense given the junior is a leader who can also chew up valuable minutes on the ice, but he's had success in Ann Arbor. The 6'3", 206 lbs defenseman spent two years in Ann Arbor playing for the US National Development Program and attending high school there. Last March at Yost, Skjei had 3 goals in 2 games against the Wolverines.
Of course it's not that simple because nothing is this season with Minnesota. There remains a health concern with Collins, another six foot-plus blue liner via the US National Development Program. Only this time it's the flu. The 18 year-old was held out of practice both Tuesday and Wednesday with the illness.
Collins' status will be decided today or tomorrow although Lucia believed he felt "a lot better" Wednesday. If he is able to go it will be only the sixth time in 17 games Minnesota has had its full lineup.
First off, if you haven't read my piece on Minnesota's shot quality over the Mariucci Classic please do so.
Secondly, seriously why haven't you read the piece? I'd read your piece on shot quality if you wrote one.
Now that's out of the way, getting better shot quality is something the Gophers are working on in the second half. The team is looking getting better, scoring on a more consistent basis with goals like Saturday, according to Lucia. Goals of the "blue collar" and lunchpail variety.
"We had quantity, but now it's time to get guys in front, guys get rebounds, second and third chances. So that's probably where the gap is and something we've been working on in practice and try to start at Michigan," Kyle Rau said.
Still, there is some positive left over in the quantity of last weekend's 91 shots on goal; the most Minnesota has put up in a two game weekend since the Gophers put up 92 in March 2013 against Bemidji State in the WCHA playoffs.
"I think for us that's creating momentum. Maybe we didn't get the kind of goals we wanted in both games, but we're playing the right kind of hockey. That's really big for us," said Hudson Fasching. "We're building a lot shots. We're building a lot more scoring chances "
Fasching talking the World Juniors
Fasching spent Wednesday talking about his play at the World Juniors, where he was named one of the three best players for the United States. The sophomore ended a six game scoreless streak at the college level with an assist on Kyle Rau's overtime winner Saturday. (It's worth noting Fasching did the same thing as a freshman before scoring a point in seven of his next eight games.)
This weekend he goes against one of his WJC linemates in Michigan's Dylan Larkin.
"My line had some success and for me it can hopefully translate to the second half of the season and we can get some momentum going," he said. "It'll be fun to play against (Larkin). I have a couple other friends and guys that I know really well on Michigan. So it's always a dream to play against guys that you know well and guys that you were just on a team with.
"We'll see how it goes. I'll be looking for them out there."
He returns from Montreal with a second consecutive fifth-place finish. Fasching says playing in college versus the World Juniors is considerably different from the amount of skill.
At the same time, there is something he will take for the second half of the season after Team USA lost two straight games and was eliminated by Russia.
"I think just the importance of momentum and how you can be building momentum. You can really build off that," said Fasching. "For us we had some decent momentum, but we lost to Canada both years in the New Year's Eve game. We lose that game and then the next game.
"Teams are streaky. If we can get on a hot streak (at Minnesota) that would be huge for us going into the second half of the year."
Rau, Reilly & Wilcox nominated for Hobey Baker Award
The initial list of 59 players nominated for the Hobey Baker Award came out Wednesday. Three Gophers - Kyle Rau, Mike Reilly and Adam Wilcox - are among the players who fans can vote for between now and March 8.
The voting only amounts to 1% of the total, however, earlier in the day Rau, who leads Minnesota with 20 points (7G-13A), was the early leader in number of votes.
That didn't mean Rau was going to be advocating for himself, however.
"I didn't even know it started today. I guess it says a lot about the Minnesota fans. They are awesome," he said. "It's pretty cool and obviously a great honor to be recognized as one of the better players in the country, but it doesn't mean much to me."
Mike Reilly is second in the nation among defenseman with 19 points (4G-15A) a season after the junior defenseman was named a first team All-American. Adam Wilcox has started all 16 games for the Gophers and has a .921 save percentage.
The list of top ten Hobey finalists will be announced March 19th.
Sheehy added to USHL/NHL Top Prospects Game roster
Minnesota commit and Burnsville, MN native Tyler Sheehy was added Wednesday to the USHL/NHL Top Prospects Game roster as a member of Team East. He replaces Chicago Steel forward Robby Jackson (St. Cloud State commit), who had to bow out because of injury.
Sheehy, with 27 points in 25 games for Waterloo, signed a letter of intent in November to play for the Gophers. He is expected to come in next season.
In addition to Sheehy, three other players with Gopher commitments - Brent Gates Jr. (Green Bay), Ryan Zuhlsdorf (Sioux City) and Waterloo teammate Tommy Novak - will be playing in the game January 13th in Dubuque, Iowa. All besides Sheehy are draft-eligible for the first time in 2015.
TV and Radio Info
If you made it this far - Friday's game will be broadcast on Big Ten Network beginning at 5:30 CT (6:30 locally in Ann Arbor). Dan Kelly and Rob Andringa have the call. Saturday's game will be on Fox Sports North Plus and Fox Sports Detroit beginning at 3:00 p.m. CT (4:00 local).
Frank Mazzocco and Wally Shaver have the radio call both days on 1500 ESPN.
Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation. He also covers the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow Nathan on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate