Minnesota relishes doing the unexpected

This Gophers team is the antithesis of last year’s defending two-time national champs.

Ben Goessling

This edition of Minnesota’s men’s hockey team isn’t as experienced as the Gophers’ national championship squads of 2001-02 and 2002-03; nor is it as talented as the one that began last season ranked No. 1 in the country.

But through nine games, the 2004-05 Gophers have also proven they’re not as big of an afterthought in the WCHA and national championship picture as many thought. And if you ask captain Judd Stevens, that has a lot to do with lessons learned from last year.

The 2003-04 Gophers were led by one of the most prolific senior classes in Minnesota history and were a good bet to win a third-straight NCAA title.

The problem was, Stevens said, they knew it all too well.

“Last year, we were too loose and too complacent,” Stevens said. “By the end of the year, we were playing good hockey, but I think we learned our lesson.”

The Gophers fell one game short of their third-straight Frozen Four last year, and few expected a return appearance to be in the cards this season.

But a 7-2-0 start, including a 5-1-0 mark in the WCHA, has this Gophers squad on top of the conference standings and many people rethinking the team’s expectations.

Minnesota’s early success is in large part because of the emergence of sophomores Ryan Potulny and Danny Irmen as top scorers.

The linemates, who played one season together in high school and two in the United States Hockey League as members of the Lincoln Stars, are tied for the team lead with 13 points each through nine games.

“Those guys were elite players coming out of junior hockey, but they both had to sit last year,” coach Don Lucia said. “To their credit, they accepted it well. It’s hard for coaches to pull veteran guys to get them in. But Danny and Ryan are moving up nicely this year.”

Minnesota has also received surprising contributions from freshman defensemen Alex Goligoski and Derek Peltier, who are fourth and fifth on the team in points, respectively.

Both have seen extensive time on the power play, and goaltender Kellen Briggs said the first-year players are progressing quicker than he expected on the defensive end.

“They’re playing very solid right now. The way they pursue and cut down odd-man rushes has been impressive,” Briggs said. “Against Wisconsin, (the Badgers) had a few breakaways. But it’s not like they were down and out at any point.”

Neither, it seems, were the Gophers.