There was a new player on Minnesota's second power play unit last weekend in State College. It was a good thing too because Brady Skjei played a role in Justin Kloos' game-winning power-play goal Friday, setting up the sophomore forward and getting the primary assist.
"Skjei right-upped it to me," Kloos told SB Nation College Hockey after Friday's win. "I had some space so I it in and then (Penn State's) D kind of overplayed me on the side wall and I was able to get to the middle. Luckily I was able to sneak one in the corner."
The junior defenseman admittedly is not the most offensive player on the ice. That's not his style. It took time in college for him to get the green light shooting. In his three seasons at Minnesota, Skjei has just 26 total points.
His fellow blue liner Mike Reilly has more assists (29) than that just this year.
A constant presence on both the penalty kill and the Gophers' defensive top pairing, the smooth-skating 2012 first round pick of the New York Rangers (28th overall) is more likely to be seen cutting down gaps and keeping high-scoring forwards at bay for Minnesota. But Skjei will take time to enjoy himself on the power play.
"I do. Obviously the coaches show some faith in me back there and it's been so far," he said. "Hopefully I can get a few more than that, though."
Still, he's been doing more than adding offense. Skjei's first two seasons were spent as the younger player on pairings with Nate Schmidt and Justin Holl. This year, the 6'3", 206 lbs defenseman, who has 9 points (1G-8A) this season in 23 games split across a pair of injuries, has been paired for most of the season with freshman Ryan Collins.
Like Skjei, Collins is a high NHL draft pick (2nd round by the Columbus Blue Jackets) that is not likely to be confused for a fourth forward anytime soon. The two don't have assigned roles, instead feeling off one another as to which player is going to jump ahead into the play.
Even more, Skjei has been in the position Collins is currently as the team faces Michigan State at Mariucci Arena today (February 26) and Friday. That helps when things go wrong like Scott Conway splitting the pair and leaving the freshman in his wake for a goal Saturday happen.
"I know it is tough as a freshman coming in here and playing right away. He's matured a lot so far this year," said Skjei, who had a couple instances of being in and out of the lineup himself, about Collins. "He's been playing some big minutes towards the end of games too, which also helps for confidence. He's been having a really good year so far."
Despite being benched for the remainder of the period, Collins finished Saturday's 4-3 overtime loss back on the ice with playing time down the stretch. A weekend before the freshman had played some of his best hockey at the collegiate level with both Skjei and him shutting down Michigan's top line of Zach Hyman, Dylan Larkin and Alex Kile.
The end result is that Skjei is one of a number of upperclassmen helping and gradually growing with new roles. Over the Gophers' 6-1-1 stretch that has the team back in NCAA Tournament and Big Ten contention, the senior class has stepped up on the scoresheet while juniors like Skjei and Reilly and senior Ben Marshall have done the same on the blue line.
"I think we've improved a ton. The freshmen are playing very well," Skjei said. "I think all three pairs of defensemen are playing well. Adam's playing well again. Defensively I think we're getting back on track."
Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate