Warning's Return Bolsters Minnesota in Time for Title Run
by Nathan Wells/CHN Reporter
Although every team entering the NCAA tournament wants to be coming into the single-elimination tournament playing their best hockey, that’s not possible. The five conference tournaments make sure of it. All the spin in the world doesn’t change the fact 11 teams have to make a quick turnaround and forget that their last game ended in a loss.
But, in the case of Minnesota forward Sam Warning, remembering last week and last year is important for the Gophers as they kick off their championship hopes against Yale Friday afternoon in Grand Rapids, Mich.
That’s because the sophomore came back after missing two games with an injury in the team’s 2-0 shutout loss to Colorado College; the second time he has this season (Sam missed nine games earlier this year). Warning’s return was surprising, as Minnesota coach Don Lucia previously noted that he was likely to miss another week.
“Monday or last weekend I probably didn’t anticipate (Warning) being ready to play this week because he hadn’t been on the ice,” said Lucia following last Friday’s loss to the Tigers.
Things changed midweek when Warning, who has 23 points (8 goals and 15 assists) in 28 games started to practice. By Thursday, the first day at the Xcel Energy Center, his lower body injury felt good enough to get through the entire practice and give it a shot the next night.
“I wasn’t too out of my game Friday night,” Warning said.
That was true. There were moments during Friday’s game where the speedy winger was all over the ice winning races to the puck. He also had one of the best chances for the Gophers to score.
Still, he was less than 100 percent. Why not have Warning get some extra rest to be ready for the following week? After all, Minnesota’s NCAA Tournament berth was wrapped up prior to the Final Five. Winning or losing the Broadmoor wouldn’t change that.
It’s an option that many coaches would take, and no one would fault them. Teams want to be 100 percent healthy at the end of the year. However, Lucia and the sophomore decided that win or lose, he would be better off getting a game under his belt and not being rusty during the NCAA Tournament.
“We didn’t want him off the ice for two straight weeks without having a game in three weeks and jump right into the NCAAs,” said Lucia. “So it was good for him to play tonight.”
The same goes with the team.
Minnesota quietly is 13-1-2 this season when Warning scores a point. That includes a highlight-reel goal against Minnesota-Duluth last month which was the No. 1 play on Sportscenter.
The sophomore forward has spent most of the last two years consistently in the top-six alongside Erik Haula. That sometimes gets overlooked with Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau doing the same, but the chemistry Haula and Warning has is hard to replicate. Both are smaller players (Warning is listed at 5-foot-9 and 181 pounds) who utilize their speed and hockey sense to create offense for the Gophers.
“Erik’s a skilled player, and he’s also a hard worker, so it’s fun to play with him,” said Warning about his linemate, who leads the Gophers with 49 points. “I’ve played with him the last two years, and we kind of know where each other is on the ice.”
Having him back in the lineup alongside Haula and Zach Budish, who has spent the majority of the season with the two, puts Minnesota at full strength in the West Regional. It’s a situation they know all well after winning the same region last year and advancing to the Frozen Four. While they are the hunted this year as the top seed in the West, the Gophers still hope to use their experience to move on to the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh and address some unfinished business.
“Last year didn’t go the way we wanted it to go. Hopefully we can get back to that point this year again,” said Warning. “We have a great team this year, so I think that experience will help us. The majority of the guys there last year are here this year, so I think it’ll help us out probably about any way it can help you.”
Minnesota has that in mind regardless of last week or even last year. They aren’t entering the NCAA Tournament on a run, but their experiences and decisions have prepared them for the challenge. Getting Sam Warning back in the lineup to complement his talented linemates certainly won't hurt either.