Looking up after a tough ending

After an improbable run this season, no successes will be labeled as such next season.

Ben Goessling

COLUMBUS, Ohio – It’s tough to fault Minnesota men’s hockey coach Don Lucia for flying his team back to Minneapolis just 12 hours after the Gophers were eliminated from the Frozen Four by North Dakota.

But then again, it might have been a good idea to keep them around for Saturday’s championship game.

Minnesota certainly didn’t need another chance to analyze North Dakota or eventual national champion Denver. But as the Gophers prepare for a 2005-06 season for which many already have a banner hung in Mariucci Arena, it might not hurt to have one more reminder about why they missed out this season.

As a whole, the Gophers’ 2004-05 campaign exceeded even Lucia’s expectations, as Minnesota took a squad with 10 freshmen and four sophomores to the program’s third Frozen Four in four years.

“A lot of people wrote us off, but we grew a lot together and proved some people wrong,” center Gino Guyer said. “As a team, we have a lot to be proud of this season.”

There’s no doubting Minnesota’s run was an improbable one. But next season – when most of the team’s core players return, joined by a highly touted recruiting class with phenoms Phil Kessel and Blake Wheeler leading the way – will be a different story.

And if the Gophers want to grab in Milwaukee what eluded them in Columbus, it might not be a band of slick forwards that brings a title home.

Minnesota needn’t look any further than the Pioneers and Sioux to see that.

“Everything, down to the little things – battling on the boards, one-on-one battles – we’re getting them done,” North Dakota defenseman Matt Greene said after the Sioux’s 4-2 win over Minnesota on Thursday. “It’s fun to watch, and it’s fun to be a part of.”

Most of the focus next season figures to be on Kessel, Danny Irmen and Ryan Potulny burning out scoreboard bulbs across the country. But the Gophers could miss gritty forwards Jake Fleming and Garrett Smaagaard more than they think.

Here is a position-by-position look at Minnesota’s 2004-05 season and what the Gophers must do to improve for next year.

Offense

What worked: Irmen and Potulny each scored in the team’s first 11 games; freshman Mike Howe rebounded from chronic rheumatoid arthritis to score eight points in his last nine games and Tyler Hirsch emerged as perhaps the team’s top playmaker, leading the Gophers with 44 points.

What needs to change: The Gophers add a supremely gifted goal-scorer in Kessel next year, as well as a pair of rangy forwards in Wheeler and Ryan Stoa. But physical teams such as Cornell and North Dakota wore Minnesota down at the end of the season, and Potulny struggled against rougher treatment.

“Their defensemen are big, they play in your face and they don’t give up a lot of rebounds,” Guyer said of the Sioux. “They wouldn’t back down, and they were sticking it to us.”

Players like Evan Kaufmann and incoming freshman Justin Bostrom should help fill the voids left by Fleming and Smaagaard. But as a team, the

Gophers need to develop more guts and show a willingness and ability to win corner battles and get to the net, rather than look for the pretty play.

Defense

What worked: Goaltender Kellen Briggs enjoyed a solid second season, tying the school record for career shutouts with eight and dropping his goals-against average from 2.62 to 2.43. Freshman defenseman Alex Goligoski was named to U.S. College Hockey Online’s all-rookie team, and freshman Nate Hagemo quickly developed into the team’s best defender.

What needs to change: First and foremost, the Gophers need to stay healthy. Hagemo, Goligoski and another freshman, Derek Peltier, all fought injuries, particularly as the season wore on. Minnesota also developed a bad habit of turning the puck over in its own zone, as was the case on North Dakota’s first goal.

“Kellen made some big saves, but boy, when you give up more than two, it’s tough to advance,” Lucia said. “I hope this is going to be a carrot for some of the young guys to get back to work.”

From a physical standpoint, Minnesota’s answer could lie with senior-to-be Peter Kennedy.

Kennedy missed most of the season with a hip injury, but he returned to practice last week clearly showing the results of five months of weightlifting. At 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds, Kennedy might provide the bulk the Gophers are missing.

Special teams

What worked: Minnesota found a skilled point man for its power play in Goligoski and ranked 11th in the country with a 20.5 power-play percentage.

What needs to change: The Gophers were fifth in the WCHA in penalty killing and need to find players like Fleming and Smaagaard, who made this their calling card. Also, Minnesota showed a tendency to be too passive on power plays – something that drew Lucia’s ire more than once this season.

Intangibles

What worked: For the most part, these Gophers displayed more fire than did the talented 2003-04 team, which saw its dreams of a third-straight national title end in the regional finals. Lucia said Thursday that his coaching staff got everything it could out of this team, which is probably an understatement.

What needs to change: With so many talented players and only one puck to go around next season, the Gophers will trade in their blue collars for white ones.

But there was something about this team’s attitude worth hanging onto.

“I think this was a good learning experience for our guys,” Lucia said. “We don’t have any All-Americans, but they really battled. You’re always sad to lose this time of year, but I’m not disappointed. And there’s a difference.”