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Ready, set, go

By Roman Augustoviz, Star Tribune, 04/01/12, 8:36PM CDT


Eden Prairie's Kyle Rau stepped right in to give Gophers scoring threat

Gophers freshman Kyle Rau, a Mr. Hockey award winner at Eden Prairie as a senior, has six game-winning goals this season. Photo by Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

Fifty-six seconds into his first college hockey game this past October, freshman Kyle Rau scored his first goal. For a Gophers program looking for a metaphorical jump-start after three consecutive seasons missing the NCAA tournament, Rau delivered quite literally.

Those goals, mostly from close range, have kept coming for the Gophers freshman -- much as his head coach expected.

"[Kyle] is going to score goals; he has scored all his life," Don Lucia said. He has repeated those or similar words throughout the past six months and will likely say them again as the Gophers prepare for the Frozen Four starting Thursday in Tampa, Fla.

Rau, 19, leads the team with six game-winning goals and in power-play goals, but his contributions go beyond the stat sheet. In some ways, he has helped shape and change the identity of the team. If one of the main critiques of recent Gophers rosters is that they were full of skilled potential pro players who lacked grit, Rau -- who is only 5-8 and 172 pounds -- is the antithesis. 

Eden Prairie's Kyle Rau celebrates his first-period goal against Boston University in the NCAA West Regionals. Photo by Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

Eden Prairie's Kyle Rau celebrates his first-period goal against Boston University in the NCAA West Regionals. Photo by Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

"The best way to describe him is tenacious," linemate Zach Budish said. "He'd be the smallest guy out there, but he will mix it up with guys that are 8 or 9 inches taller than him and have 75 pounds on him. He is fearless."

Lucia said the Gophers needed Rau to contribute this season, and he did immediately. Rau has thrived as the left winger on the team's top line with center Nick Bjugstad and Budish. He was named the national rookie of the month in October, when he scored seven goals. The Gophers, picked to finish sixth in the WCHA, rocketed to a 7-1 start and rode that momentum to the WCHA regular-season and the berth in the Frozen Four.

"We are all excited to be where we are," Rau said, "and we are all happy."


Big-name recruit

Rau, who became a Gophers fan a decade ago as the team was winning back-to-back NCAA titles in 2002 and 2003, brought high expectations that he could help return the program to glory.

His hockey credentials were impeccable. Unlike many top prep players who opt for junior hockey their senior year, Rau stayed at Eden Prairie High School. He had a monster season playing with his twin brother, Curt, and a bunch of longtime buddies from youth hockey. He scored 41 goals as the Eagles won their second Class 2A state title in three years. His diving, highlight-reel goal gave Eden Prairie a three-overtime victory over Duluth East in the championship game.

Rau was chosen the state's Mr. Hockey and then joined Sioux Falls for the USHL playoffs and surprisingly led the league in postseason points. The Florida Panthers selected him in the third round of the 2011 NHL draft.

"He never gives up on anything," said Curt Rau, a defenseman for the NAHL's Odessa Jackalopes.

Kyle's teammates on the Gophers soon found that out.

"A lot of guys come to college and it takes them a little bit to figure it out," captain Taylor Matson said. "Kyle stepped in right away."

Rau has 18 goals this season and leads Division I freshmen with 43 points. The only rookie with more goals is Johnny Gaudreau of Boston College with 20. Their teams meet Thursday in the semifinals.

"They are very similar-type players," Lucia said. "About the same size. Both very slippery. Very highly skilled."


In grandpa's mold

Kyle Rau's grandfather, Jerry Rau was small, too. He was a 5-8, 195-pound guard for the Gophers football team from 1952 to '54. His best friend on the team was Paul Giel, a two-time All-America.

Kyle Rau's grandfather, Jerry Rau, left, pictured with Geno Cappelletti. Star Tribune file photo

"I got to like Rau because of how hard he worked on the football field," Giel was quoted as saying in a 1953 newspaper story. "He impressed me as a guy who never quit."

Jerry Rau, playing in a single wing, often pulled to block for Giel on runs and passes. Before he died in 2000, Jerry Rau enjoyed telling stories to his twin grandsons on their vacation visits about his football days and other life experiences.

At home, Kyle had a backyard rink and three brothers to play with. Matt is 26 years old now. Chad, who has bounced back and forth between the Houston Aeros and the Wild this season, is 25. Matt stands 6-1, Chad 5-11 and Curt, born one minute before Kyle, is 5-10, 185.

"Kyle had to work hard and strengthen himself to compete with us," Curt said.

Said their father, Mike Rau, who played for Edina West in high school: "Kyle was always dragged along when the two older boys were playing. And he would always go behind the net and watch the games from ice level. He was always watching and studying. ... Of all our kids, Kyle was always the best checker."

Coaches and teammates alike marvel at his hockey IQ, his ability to find open spots near the net. Budish appreciates Rau's skill and versatility.

"He plays on the power play, he plays on the penalty kill. He is good defensively. He blocks shots," Budish said. "He does little things that don't show up on the scoresheet."

Away from the rink, Rau -- a serious student who is enrolled in the Carlson School of Management -- blends in easily with the mass of students at the university.

Well, except for his ultrablond hair. Team leaders coaxed everyone into dyeing their locks for the playoffs. Kyle's parents suggested a trim might be wise after the color change.

"No, we are going with it," he said.

He wants to fit in, even if it temporarily means looking like a member of a punk rock band.


The best for last

One of Rau's strongest traits is particularly relevant this time of year: He plays his best in the biggest games.

In addition to his state tournament heroics last season, he scored in the last minute to give the Gophers a sweep of North Dakota at Mariucci Arena in early November. And in the first West Regional game last weekend, Rau had a goal and three assists against Boston University for a season-high four points.

"That is what we train for in the summertime," Rau said, "to be in the big game. And now it is here."

For the first time since 2005, the Gophers are in the Frozen Four. There are plenty of reasons, but Rau is near the top of the list.

"This is where the program belongs," Rau said, "and everyone knows that."

Recent Stories

NCAA Frozen Four

At Tampa, Fla.

Thursday: Union vs. Ferris State, 3:30 p.m.; Gophers vs. Boston College, 7 p.m. (ESPN2)

Saturday: Championship, 6 p.m.

Kyle Rau File


Kyle Rau's hockey highlights:

March 12, 2011: His goal in third OT gave Eden Prairie 3-2 victory over Duluth East in Class 2A boys' hockey championship.

March 13, 2011: Named Mr. Hockey as top senior high school player in the state.

June 25, 2011: Taken 91st overall by Florida Panthers at NHL draft in St. Paul.

Dec. 26, 2011-Jan. 5, 2012: Played on U.S. team at World Junior Championship (two goals, three assists in six games).

March 8, 2012: Named to the WCHA's all-rookie team.

March 24-25, 2012: His goal and four assists in two West Region games helped lead Gophers to first Frozen Four since '05.

Proven Winner

Freshman left winger Kyle Rau of Eden Prairie has been credited with six game-winning goals this season, a team high. Here's a recap of each one:

Oct. 7: He scored 56 seconds into his first college game. The Gophers routed Sacred Heart 9-0.

Oct. 15: His power-play goal midway through the third period gave the Gophers a 5-2 lead at Minnesota Duluth. They won 5-4.

Oct. 21: The Gophers beat Vermont 6-0 after scoring three first-period goals. Rau got the first at 44 seconds.

Nov. 5: Rau's eighth goal of the season, with 46 seconds left, gave the Gophers a 3-2 victory over North Dakota.

Dec. 3: The Gophers took a 3-0 lead against Minnesota State Mankato late in the first period on Rau's goal and won 3-2.

Feb. 25: Rau scored a goal halfway through the second period -- one of his team-high nine on the power play this season -- to put the Gophers ahead 3-1 at Nebraska Omaha. The final score was 3-2.

Mr. Hockey Award Winners

1985 Tom Chorske Minneapolis Southwest LW
1986 George Pelawa Bemidji RW
1987 Kris Miller Greenway, Coleraine D
1988 Larry Olimb Warroad C
1989 Trent Klatt Osseo RW
1990 Joe Dziedzic Minneapolis Edison LW
1991 Darby Hendrickson Richfield C
1992 Brian Bonin White Bear Lake C
1993 Nick Checco Bloomington Jefferson LW
1994 Mike Crowley Bloomington Jefferson D
1995 Erik Rasmussen St. Louis Park LW
1996 Dave Spehar Duluth East F
1997 Aaron Miskovich Grand Rapids C
1998 Johnny Pohl Red Wing C
1999 Jeff Taffe Hastings C
2000 Paul Martin Elk River D
2001 Marty Sertich Roseville C
2002 Gino Guyer Greenway, Coleraine C
2003 Nate Dey North St. Paul F
2004 Tom Gorowsky Centennial C
2005 Brian Lee Moorhead D
2006 David Fischer Apple Valley D
2007 Ryan McDonagh Cretin-Derham Hall D
2008 Aaron Ness Roseau D
2009 Nick Leddy Eden Prairie D
2010 Nick Bjugstad Blaine C
2011 Kyle Rau Eden Prairie C
2012 Justin Kloos Lakeville South C
2013 Grant Besse Benilde-St. Margaret's LW
2014 Avery Peterson Grand Rapids C
2015 Jake Jaremko Elk River F
2016 Riley Tufte Blaine LW
2017 Casey Mittelstadt Eden Prairie C
2018 Sammy Walker Edina C