Don Lucia was due for some good news.
For weeks, a steady stream of players suffered illness after injury after illness, to the point that the mere sight of team trainer Jeff Winslow terrified the Gophers’ head coach.
Winslow “is the Grim Reaper,” Lucia said Monday on his weekly radio show, a phrase he used again Wednesday when he spoke with the media. “Every time he comes in, it’s more bad news.”
It started in practice with a puck that cracked a bone in junior Nick Larson’s right foot. That was Oct. 18, two days after Minnesota was swept by Nebraska Omaha.
The following weekend, freshman Nick Bjugstad was diagnosed with mononucleosis between games in the St. Cloud State series.
Then came Lucia’s nightmare week leading up to Wisconsin’s visit to Mariucci Arena.
Monday, sophomore winger Zach Budish crashed his mo-ped on 15th Avenue Southeast; he will undergo season-ending knee surgery Nov. 22. Wednesday, Jake Parenteau became the second freshman in as many weeks to contract mono. Friday, senior Patrick White got the flu.
Against the Badgers, the Gophers had a lone extra skater available and limped — literally as much as figuratively — out of the weekend with a loss and a tie.
But during Minnesota’s subsequent week off, something remarkable happened, something Lucia might have doubted was possible: His team got healthy.
Barring major setbacks, every skater with the exception of Budish will be available to play when the No. 19 Gophers (5-4-1 overall, 3-4-1 WCHA) travel to Michigan Tech (3-4-2, 1-4-1) for their second road series of the season.
“The week off couldn’t have come at a better time for us,” Lucia said.
Of course, not everything will click back into place immediately.
“They’ve got to get their timing back,” Lucia said. “They’ve been a little bit better every day, but … it’s been awhile.”
Especially for Larson and Bjugstad. Respectively off skates for four and three maddening weeks, they’re happy — if a little winded — to be back.
Larson has an extra layer of protection for his right foot, a rigid plastic piece that covers his laces.
“I feel a little sore, a little tired, a little out of shape,” he said after two days of practice. “But getting back out there feels nice after being out for so long.”
The same goes for Bjugstad. He said he’s never missed extended time with an injury or sickness.
“I felt pretty good these past couple days [of practice],” Bjugstad said, “so I think I’ll be able to get back into it. It might take a couple of shifts to get used to the pace again.”
Bjugstad has been practicing at right wing on the second line, next to fellow freshman Nate Condon and senior Jacob Cepis. That’s where Budish played before his mo-ped crash. White practiced in that spot the week before the Wisconsin series, then caught the flu.
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