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The Mental Battle: Connor Reilly's work off the ice is paying dividends for Minnesota

How watching video and talking with a mental coach to work on his biggest muscle has transformed a former fourth liner with a good shot into Minnesota's leading goal scorer midway through the season

Matt Christians

Mike Reilly isn't the only one to notice his older brother's play over the last month.

On a career-high six game point streak, Connor Reilly, a 6'0", 180 lbs redshirt sophomore forward for the University of Minnesota, currently leads the Gophers with eight goals in 16 games despite spending part of the year outside the Gophers top-nine. Five of those have come since November 28th.  Over that stretch he has become more positive and confident in his abilities on the ice.

"I think he's filled with more confidence," Mike said about Connor last weekend. "He's filled with more confidence as the year goes on and being rewarded with shooting the puck a lot more and being confident in that area."

The matter of it is that the 23 year-old has been working just as hard mentally off the ice as he has physically on the ice.

Connor Reilly's road to leading Minnesota in goals and playing on the team's first line has been a long one. After scoring 35 goals in 54 games in juniors for Penticton (BCHL) in 2011-12, Reilly had to wait another year to play for the Gophers. An off-ice knee injury before what would have been his freshman season meant he had to sit in the stands instead of playing alongside Mike and twin brother Ryan at Minnesota.

He kickstarted his collegiate career in fall 2013 with 12 points (6G-6A) in 37 games as the Gophers came within a win of its sixth national championship.

For much of the second half and throughout Minnesota's run through the 2014 NCAA Tournament, Connor played on the team's fourth line alongside Vinni Lettieri and Gabe Guertler. There he was one of several players fighting for ice time. As Reilly continued to recover from his injury, however, the more time he got.

When the new season began Connor's role was expected to grow. Reilly's shot has always been one of his strengths. Minnesota's top-nine had holes to fill with graduates and departures. Instead, he spent the first six weeks floating in and out of the power play and between all four forward lines, a stop gap in the top-nine when players were missing from injury or suspension.

"A lot of time I wasn't getting to pucks quick enough. Sometimes I would have a little hesitation," admitted Connor. "Also I was just falling down a lot as well. Sometimes I wouldn't be getting hit that hard. Sometimes I would just get bumped. Sometimes I would be on my own."

What the coaching staff saw was a player who was not in position for the team to get to playing offense. When he was, Reilly had a hard time winning the battles and coming away with the puck.

"With Connor, it wasn't that he was off a lot. He was just a couple steps off here or there. Maybe it was body position. Maybe it was stick position," Minnesota assistant coach Grant Potulny said. "And we always knew Connor had an offensive upside, but we had to get him past some of that whether it was D zone positioning or whether it was neutral zone transition. We had to get him in the half court where he could score some goals."

Then there was the mental game. Between the high expectations Minnesota had coming off the national championship loss to Union and not playing to his potential, the pressures can take a strain on a player.

Both were issues Reilly looked to "work his butt off" away from the ice.

Reilly spoke with Potulny, who works with the forwards, late in the first half and heard the message that he could be better and the team needed him to be better.  The two also went over video, which as Potulny stated helps make sense in ways that words from the coaches sometimes cannot.

"I think talking to (Coach) Potulny, just seeing video and seeing things with my own eyes, it was definitely helpful because I know I can work harder in certain areas and be quicker on pucks. Just seeing that on video when there's different examples when I was going hard and other times when I wasn't going hard enough," Connor said. "It was just nice to see that visually."

At the same time, he also worked with a mental coach to work on changing his attitude and thought process. Connor texted him every day for three weeks what he wanted to do.

"He said that it wasn't a confidence thing with me. It was just my thought process," said Connor.  "A lot of times I would be going in saying things like ‘I'm not going to do this or I'm not going to do that,' but because I was focusing on that that's exactly what I did."

Both paid off. Reilly is looking to have positive weekends between a combination of the two approaches. He did so against Michigan State last month, where the redshirt sophomore had three goals in two games against the Spartans.

He added a goal and an assist to begin the second half last weekend to take over the team's goal scoring lead. Since November 28th against Boston College - a stretch of six games - Reilly, who averages 1.62 shots per game, has had nearly an extra ¾ of a shot to go with his five goals and three assists.

"I'm glad I did that. Now I hope I can build off that and keep becoming the player I want to be and contribute as much as I can," he said.

Yet Reilly's change in demeanor, his confidence and positivity if you will, goes beyond scoring. It has to. Hot streaks come and go. Even for the best.

The redshirt sophomore is stronger on his feet and losing fewer puck battles.  He is finding a place as the complementary piece between Kyle Rau and Hudson Fasching on Minnesota's top line. (It's a role Potulny, who played for the Gophers from 2000-2004, once shared. In fact, the assistant coach mentioned that he sees a lot of similarities in both his and Connor's games.) When the team's power play struggled against Merrimack in a 3-2 loss to open the second half, Connor took the glass half full approach, discussing more what they have to do than looking at the negative of what he couldn't do.

He is winning the mental battle and earning the opportunities from the beginning of the year.

"The pace of his play is improving as the year goes on and that we're rewarding him with more ice time and playing with our top players (Connor) has delivered," said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia.

Of course, Lucia would like to have more players pick up the pace of play. Minnesota is 10-5-1 on the season and trying in the second half to hit the same stride it had a season ago.

Reilly's growth and recent play raises the question whether the work of one individual can pay dividends throughout the 27 man roster.

"I think we've always felt that the stronger you are individually, the better the group is collectively. Sometimes you can take a little bit of time on a certain individual and if he gets himself going now he helps get other guys going," Potulny said.

"But individual skill work and the illusion of success is important obviously for team success."

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