In the Middle Of It All
Minnesota's Rau Makes Offense Go
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
PHILADELPHIA Kyle Rau saw it first.
A shot from defenseman Justin Holl snuck through two North Dakota players and goaltender Zane Gothberg, kicked off the post and extended Minnesota's season. The goal came with 0.6 seconds remaining in regulation with the Gophers killing a penalty. Rau, who assisted on the goal, stood to the right of the night and watched it rattle around the cage.
Scoring his first goal of the season on such a stage made Holl the hero on Thursday night. Like it so often has been for the Gophers, though, Rau was in the middle of it all.
"We had a D-zone draw," Rau said. "I just wanted to win it back, but once Holl had the puck and gave it to me, I thought we had a chance.
"I was just trying to get a shot on net. It got blocked, but it fell right to Justin. When it went in, I knew it was a good goal because I never heard the final buzzer."
Moving to the middle of the ice for his junior season has created this opportunity for Rau. The departures of Nick Bjugstad and Erik Haula for the National Hockey League wiped out any kind of depth up the middle for Don Lucia's team.
From years watching Rau prior to his time at Minnesota, Lucia knew Rau was a strong candidate to make the move, having played there before joining the Gophers. The well-rounded, three-zone center is as effective in his own end as he is with the puck. Moreover, the type of moments Lucia anticipated deciding his team's season don't change Rau's game. He plays the same smart, relentless hockey no matter the situation. Lucia's witnessed this firsthand, even before Rau was his player.
One moment from Rau's time at Eden Prairie (Minn.) High School solidified Lucia's opinion of the gifted playmaker.
As a senior, Rau led Eden Prairie to a state championship and scored the game-winning goal in overtime. After a shot from the point snuck through the legs of a goaltender, Rau dove and redirected a clearing attempt back into the vacated net. High school isn't major college hockey, but the moment, the commitment and the raw talent made it clear Rau was Gopher without even trying.
"It's way bigger, on a way bigger stage here," Rau said. "Back in high school, it was just Minnesota. Now, it's college and the national tournament. So, it was a way bigger goal for Justin there."
Unfortunately for Lucia, some of Rau's earliest heroics came at the expensive of Lucia's youngest son, Mario, who just completed his sophomore season at Notre Dame.
"I watched Kyle play from PeeWees on, same age group as Mario was," Lucia said. "It broke my heart when they won in double overtime in the regional finals after beating Wayzata. And Kyle scored the game-winning goal then went on to score the game-winning goal in the state title game. That's the type of player he is. He scores big goals. He makes plays in those moments."
More went into that decision to shift Rau from left wing to center, but it was these moments from his youth, along with strong freshman and sophomore seasons, that told Lucia Rau was the right man for the job. Rau leapt senior captain Nate Condon as the center on the Gophers' top line, which let Condon play with Justin Kloos and Taylor Cammarata.
"We moved Kyle to center. We let Nate kind of babysit the two freshmen on his line," Lucia said. "But Kyle makes plays and that was a big faceoff. There's nine seconds to go. It's a critical faceoff. You lose the draw, they're going to get a good scoring opportunity. We went up the short side. He started the play. He made the play."
As the season progressed, Rau, Sam Warning and Hudson Fasching formed Minnesota's top line. Led by Rau, the group served as both a top offensive grouping and dominant shut down line. At even strength, the group routinely plays tough minutes against opponents' best forwards and produces points against other top defensemen.
"Rau is a good player," Warning said. "But he's a grinder, too. So playing with him is an honor for me. But tonight I think he had an (assist) on both goals. He's right in front of the net. He's always creating havoc for the other."
However, Rau's individual brilliance is in his versatility and effectiveness in all situations. It was the reason he was on the ice Thursday night, taking a faceoff and killing a penalty at the most pivotal point of the season's most pivotal game.
"When Rau gets going, we know he's bringing it every night," Holl said. "That's a big reason he's one of our captains. He's a great asset to have on our team. ... He's involved in both goals tonight and shows how important he is to us."
Nine seconds left, down a man on the ice, desperate to force overtime, Kyle Rau won a defensive zone faceoff and set up a goal at the other end of the rink. He didn't score the goal this time around, but he made the play happen. He had the best seat in the house to watch Justin Holl send the Gophers to Saturday's national championship game.
The 17,311 in attendance saw nothing but a chance for North Dakota to use those final 9 seconds of regulation to find a game-winner. Rau knew the Gophers could make something happen just as well. Holl was the hero when Wells Fargo Center emptied Thursday night, but, as Lucia said, "it all started with Kyle winning a faceoff."