Tommy Novak was downright confounded for the past three years.
When he looked at his Gophers team and its abundance of talent, all that skill should have translated into one of college hockey’s best power plays. And yet, the unit was just kind of average.
Not anymore. The Gophers power play ranks fifth in the nation.
“This year, it’s finally starting to do really well,” Novak said. “It’s making sense.”
Novak, coincidentally, was the missing piece to that conundrum when first-year coach Bob Motzko positioned the senior on the blue line with the man advantage just after the holiday break. The move took the power play from decent to great, with a 27 percent conversion rate as the team travels to Penn State this weekend.
Motzko had mostly employed a four-forward, one-defenseman power play for the first half of the season, utilizing his first line of Brent Gates Jr., Rem Pitlick and Tyler Sheehy, plus Novak and defenseman Clayton Phillips on his first unit. Sometime around Thanksgiving, the idea of using a five-forward system came to mind.
Motzko is kicking himself because it took him a month to actually implement the plan. But when he replaced Phillips with forward Brannon McManus, and moved the 6-1, 200-pound Novak to the point, surprising consistency came from his inconsistent team. The Gophers have scored a power-play goal in seven consecutive games.
“If this were a year later, [Novak] would be playing defense because he sees the ice like a magician,” Motzko said.
“He can dictate a game, how he can feel the puck and break it out.”
When Motzko suggested the switch to Novak, the center’s response was a cool “sure, whatever.” He’s not a man of many words. Novak said he’s even taken flak in the past for a “lackadaisical” playing style.
Then again, he’s much more animated with his teammates. As a freshman, he once made the risky decision to share a funny self-written rap about living in the 17th Avenue Residence Hall with the team group chat. The teasing was merciless.
But no one’s laughing now. Novak said he’d always been interested running the power play, even though this is his first time doing so in his career. Being the last man back and not having a defenseman to clean up behind him was a little stressful at first. But the position feels natural, relying on his vision, a strong sense of shot selection and the ability to pass and make plays.
“It’s actually probably the easiest job on the power play, if you just don’t try to do too much,” Novak said. “Let the other guys make the plays.”
Novak has three goals and 13 assists this season, with two of those scores recently on the power play. He said he’s more of a goal-scorer than he’s shown, though he admits his shot isn’t as potent as others on the team.
Maybe not for long. Goaltender Mat Robson said an unexpected bonus of all this special teams confidence is what it’s done for Novak’s shot development.
“What is surprising is how hard his one-timer is getting. He’s gotten a few really, really good goals from high above the circle there,” Robson said. “He’s always had a great shot, but especially in that position, he’s looking to pass first. So it’s really nice to see him shooting and kind of throwing other goalies off.”
Motzko recalled making a similar move once before in his coaching career with Drew LeBlanc at St. Cloud State in 2013. LeBlanc won the Hobey Baker that season.
While that won’t happen for Novak, and the power play will likely endure an ebb to match this flow, the conviction Novak has instilled in the power play has been indispensable.
“Any time we see a penalty on other team, we get really excited, and we’re the first ones to jump over the boards,” Sheehy said.
“We all have the mind-set that we’re going to score every power play.”