Who got the Gophers going again? A little-known goalie from the bench
For Don Lucia, the math has been simple. His Gophers men’s hockey team isn’t scoring up to past standards, averaging a pedestrian 2.32 goals per game, so the best way to win is limiting the goals potted by the opponent. That’s easier said than done, but for the better part of the past two months, the Gophers have had an answer.
The sophomore goalie has been a season-changer, seizing the starting job by the scruff of the neck and dragging the Gophers from the depths of the Big Ten standings to a chance to finish in the top three entering this weekend’s final regular-season series at Penn State.
“He’s certainly given us an opportunity every night,” said Lucia, who has started Robson for seven consecutive games. “As you’ve seen, we haven’t scored a ton of goals this year. He’s given us a chance to win some games 2-1 or 1-0, and that’s an important ingredient this time of year.”
Indeed, it is, and the Mississauga, Ontario, native has helped the Gophers morph into a team that can win a tight, low-scoring game — the type typical in playoff hockey. Since taking over as the No. 1 goalie in late January after splitting time with junior Eric Schierhorn, Robson is on a 5-1-1 roll. Included in that was a 1-0 shutout of then-No. 1 Notre Dame in which he outdueled Fighting Irish stalwart Cale Morris, and last weekend’s 2-1 win and 1-1 tie against No. 6 Ohio State and red-hot netminder Sean Romeo.
“It’s been fun. Obviously, sitting out the first half was a bit of a battle,” said Robson, who was shelved for the first half of the season because of an NCAA ruling over his brief stint with a Canadian major junior team at age 16. “But I knew what was going to happen. I just had to keep my head up and come to work every day. I knew I’d get my chance, and obviously I’m having fun doing it.”
The Gophers are having fun, too, putting a 1-6-1 start to the Big Ten season in the past and moving to the verge of clinching a home series in the best-of-three conference quarterfinals next weekend. If the Gophers gain one point at Penn State, they’ll secure fourth place and home ice. If they sweep the Nittany Lions, they’ll move ahead of Michigan and finish third. In the PairWise Ratings, Minnesota entered Thursday at No. 8 nationally, in line for a No. 2 seed in an NCAA tournament regional.
“We put ourselves back in a good position, but obviously there’s a lot at stake this weekend,” Lucia said.
High-stakes games are easier to win with a goalie who’s not letting much get past him. Robson is 7-2-1 with a 1.53 goals-against average and .945 save percentage — the latter two stats would rank second and third nationally if he had enough appearances to qualify. He has allowed two goals or fewer in nine of his 11 games this season, and in the process has earned a Big Ten weekly honor in four of eight series.
“He’s been unbelievable,” Gophers forward Brent Gates Jr. said. “… When we’ve needed a big save, he’s come up with one.”
Robson is positionally sound in the net, using an economy of movement to make saves. He likens his approach to another pivotal position in sports.
“I like to use the comparison like a quarterback in the pocket,” the 6-2, 176-pounder said. “When pressure’s closing in, it’s being able to stay calm and deliver a pass. It’s doing the same thing, except instead of throwing the ball, I’m catching the puck. … Quiet feet, quiet hands and let the puck hit you, basically is all it is.”
So, a Tom Brady of sorts on the ice. Robson does have a championship pedigree, too, backstopping the Penticton Vees to the British Columbia Hockey League title last year. In the playoffs, Robson started all 21 games, and won three Game 7s to win the championship, capped by a 1-0 shutout of the Chilliwack Chiefs for the crown.
“Definitely there’s a lot to draw from,” Robson said. “… There’s going to be ebbs and flows, up and downs. You’ve got to keep moving forward and marching through the playoffs, and hopefully we can go on a run here.”