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Mike, I just wanted to ask you a little bit about Robbie Earl and his defense. What have you seen out of him this year that has made you more willing to put him, say, on a penalty kill against a team like Michigan this last weekend? That indicates that there's maybe a little more trust there and that his defense has really come along. Do you see that?
"Well, it's a little bit a two-pronged answer to that in the fact that I think Robbie is willing to play and understands a little bit more about how to play away from the puck. What makes him dangerous as a person you might have on a penalty killing or, you know, when the other team pulls their goaltender, is the fact that he can make plays. A, he can get there, B, he's got a good stick, and C, once the puck is on his stick, he can get the puck out and make a play. So it's about his growth as a total hockey player.
"And, I mean, when you're on a power play and you have, you're playing against a guy like Robbie, you know, you're going to be a little bit more leery of, maybe you're thinking a little bit about how to defend him as opposed to just trying to score. So, you know, his growth away from the puck and his willingness to want to do that makes him a weapon in that area now."
Mike, how much, assuming that you're going to be No. 1 and that appears to be the direction things are going, how much of that do you view as an achievement and how much of it do you view as a complete psychological trap?
"I think it's how we present it as coaches. It could become a psychological trap if we put a lot of stock into it. We spoke as a team yesterday when we got off the bus, you know, let's — much like it reminds you of what Barry (Alvarez) says after they win, let's enjoy the 24 hours and let's talk about how we got to be at this point again. We talked about the process again. And so that kind of keeps things at an even keel.
"As we talked about after the game Saturday night, the only time being No. 1 really counts is at the end of the year. So it's an early season measuring stick. Let's not forget how we got to this point. And we still have so much to get improved, and the gentlemen are aware of that, the young men are aware of that. And this week will be another step for us to try to make improvement."
In trying to use psychological things to motivate the team, how important is it, because the team hasn't won in the last ten times at Mariucci, is that something you put out there, something you talk about with the team in trying to win there or do you not even talk about something like that?
"I don't think any motivation is needed. You know, it could be, our task is just going to be able to try to keep our guys in a state of mind where they just go and play, don't try too hard. The things that you mentioned there, you know, that exists, but the motivation is going to be the easy part. The emotion is going to be there. That'll be the easy part. The challenge for our kids, will (be to) keep those emotions in check and allowing themselves to get into that ideal performance state so they can go out and play their best."
The guys talked Saturday night about having a bull's-eye on them now. Do you get the sense from, just from the way they've played the last few weeks that they're, I mean, a mature enough team to handle this?
"I think so. I think that we're quite comfortable with that. I mean, that's, if we have a bull's-eye on our back then we're doing things that we want to do or we're going where we want to be, and we just need to continue to try to keep that bull's-eye on our back, I guess. Let's just keep getting better and if that stays on our back then that's an indicator of a good thing for us."
Mike, how much, have you seen Minnesota on tape yet?
"Very little, to be honest with you. As a matter of fact, as soon as we're done here, I'll start. This morning we spent talking and catching up on things, but this afternoon we'll start viewing the tape in more detail."
On paper, and we all know how far that gets you, you could suggest that they're the most talented team in the country when you look at what they brought in, the players they have on the ice. Is that a fair assessment?
"That's a fair assessment. That's why they were voted, you know, where they were at the beginning of the year to win our league. They have lots of talent. They can skate. And so I think that's why a lot of people picked them to be where they thought they might be at the beginning of the year. And so, you know, they didn't get out of the gates the way they wanted to, but they pulled themselves together here and are playing some pretty good hockey right now."
Looking at the statistics, they would say it's an offense versus a defensive type of match-up. Is it fair to say, too simplistic to say, that this is an offensive team against a defensive team, this weekend's matchup? "Well, you can take a look at it, when we were done with this weekend, this series, we took a look at the goals for and against differential. Both ended at plus-three in terms of we, you know, where we scored and what we gave up and where they scored and what they gave up. We both ended up plus-three, so you think that's a pretty good matchup.
"Offense versus defense, you know, I always think that we try to play well with and without the puck. So I think that we try to be a balanced team in the way we play. Minnesota's power play has been unbelievable. It's almost, it's comprised almost 30 percent of their goals, and so that's been a real weapon for them and that speaks to their offense."
As obviously a person who appreciates what teams can do on the power play, is it just sheer talent, is it, what makes their power play as effective as it has been? Because it's not just this year. It's every year.
"Well, it's ability. It's natural skills. It's about having five people on the ice that have puck skills, that can see the ice, and at the moment of truth when they need to make a play can make that play, take what's given. And that's what they can do."
Last year some of the former players of this program, one in particular, expressed the significance of when your team would play against Phil Kessel, now playing for the Gophers, and how important it was for the Badgers to beat him, almost making it an individual thing. Do you have to guard against concern about toning it down with the team and not focusing on one individual and it being team versus team, and is it significant going against somebody that's from Madison?
"I've not heard one of the guys talk about that at all. Phil is one of the guys on their team that's a very good player, and I've not, much to our, as a coaching staff, pleasure, have not heard anybody mention that. So I don't think, right now it's a non-issue. It's two very good college hockey teams going head-to-head."