November 17, 2010 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Denver's Salazar Back in the Spotlight

Sophomore Slump has Given Way to Great Start For Junior Forward

by Dan Myers/CHN Staff

Luke Salazar has seven goals already this season. (photo: Leanne Lofte)

Luke Salazar has seven goals already this season. (photo: Leanne Lofte)

Standing just 5-foot-7 and 150 lbs., Denver Pioneers junior Luke Salazar is the smallest player on the team's roster. But his play is perhaps the biggest reason why DU enters this weekend's series against Bemidji State in fourth place in the WCHA.

Expectations were high last season for Salazar, coming off a freshman campaign where he scored 15 goals among 25 points. He was expected to help fill the skates of departed freshman linemate Tyler Bozak. Needless to say, the expectations never materialized — at least not in a productive way. Salazar struggled to find the ice last season, playing in just 17 games and scoring only one goal and adding four assists.

"A couple of things became evident in things that were lacking in Luke's game," Pioneers head coach George Gwozdecky said. "I think the one thing he realized as soon as the season was over last year was there were certain things he needed to do in the offseason to make himself a more multi-dimensional player.

"As a freshman, if you gave him the puck in the scoring area, he was going to bury it. He has those gifts of being a goal scorer. Tyler Bozak was able to put him in those positions. But once (Bozak) wasn't with us, I think you could see how Tyler's teammates were affected by his loss, and I think Luke saw what he needed to do to become a better all around player."

Because of his limited stature, Salazar knew he needed to get stronger in order to compete in the rugged WCHA. In the offseason, he did just that. With the help of a new strength coach and a new regiment, Salazar got considerably stronger in the offseason — results he says have already helped him this young season.

"I needed to get stronger — stronger on the puck, stronger in the corners — so I could play in a variety of situations," Salazar said. "It's shown this season, I think, with my ability to battle for pucks and stay on my feet."

Entering this season minus graduated forwards Tyler Ruegsegger and Rhett Rakhshani, and early-departure forward Joe Colborne, the Pioneers needed a resurgence from Salazar to help ease their young players into the lineup on a nightly basis.

And what a resurgence they've gotten.

Through 12 games, Salazar already has seven goals, including four in the Pioneers' last five games — a stretch where DU has lost just once. Last weekend against Minnesota State, Salazar bagged one goal Friday in a 3-2 win before adding a pair of goals in a 6-1 victory Saturday.

"I think it's a combination of things," Salazar said regarding the reason behind his rebound this season. "Confidence is a big thing for me. If I am playing a certain way, I can build up that confidence. If I think I can play that way, I will and it just keeps rolling."

Salazar also said he took his freshman year for granted.

"Now, I'm just trying to take advantage of every opportunity I can get," Salazar said.

Considering the luck the Pioneers have had with early-season injuries, the re-emergence of Salazar has taken on a whole new importance. Without Ruegsegger, Rakhshani and Colborne around, DU's offense was going to have a different look this season regardless. Early season bumps and bruises to freshman Nick Shore and senior Dustin Jackson haven't helped, and the loss of Jesse Martin to a devastating neck injury have made things all the more difficult in the Mile High City. Combine that with early-season goal-scoring slumps by Anthony Maiani (he scored his first two goals of the season Saturday against MSU) and Kyle Ostrow, and offense has certainly been at a premium.

"We basically lost our entire first power-play unit," Salazar said. "We pretty much have a whole new team this year and I think we're still trying to work some things out with all of these new guys. As an older guy, sure, I'm trying to do everything I can to help lessen the load on the young guys. But those guys are some of the best players on our team."

"The work he put in over the offseason has paid off," Gwozdecky said. "He's still a gifted goal scorer. But now he's a lot more of a reliable player. He's able to compete harder despite the fact he's one of the smaller guys on the ice."

- Follow Dan Myers on Twitter at CHNDanMyers.

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