Minnesota loses season opener to Black Bears

Chris Lempesis

Coming into Friday’s season-opening contest with Maine, Minnesota’s men’s hockey team was looked at as a young team that would experience a good share of struggles early on.

For most of the first 20 minutes of play Friday, the Gophers did nothing to change that notion.

Third-ranked Minnesota lacked direction and rhythm and, thanks to a pair of odd Black Bears goals, trailed 2-0.

But, late in the period, the Gophers broke out of their funk and, although they never were quite able to come back, ultimately losing to 11th-ranked Maine 3-1 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, they showed that they could be good sooner rather than later.

“There were so many more positives for me than negatives,” coach Don Lucia said.

“We got better as the game went on and to me, those are real, real positives that we can take out of this game.”

The beginning of the improvement came with 1:06 to play in the first. It came on a goal by the player wearing the jersey of a guy whose defection was a big reason Minnesota is expected to struggle.

Freshman forward Jay Barriball – donning the same No. 26 that now-departed phenom Phil Kessel wore during his one season at Minnesota – cut the deficit in half by recovering a rebound near the front of the crease and getting the puck around Maine goaltender Ben Bishop before falling down.

The play was just one of many for Barriball in a solid first-game showing.

“Jay’s a hockey player. He’s a throwback,” Lucia said. “He’s one of those guys that, he’s not that big but he plays with a lot of jam and I thought he was really good tonight.”

Barriball’s play was indicative of the Gophers’ entire group of freshmen forwards, all six of whom saw the ice Friday night.

The group was responsible for a majority of Minnesota’s quality scoring chances, most of which came in the second and third periods. The group definitely outshined the upperclassmen on the team.

“We all got good skill,” Barriball said. “We all work hard. So I think we fit in well.”

The offensive showings of the youngsters came as a bit of a surprise to Lucia.

That doesn’t mean he was disappointed by it, though.

“I thought they played physical,” Lucia said. “They made plays with the puck and looked like they belonged.”

What the performances were lacking were strong finishes. But that had more to do with Bishop’s play.

As the Gophers dominated the offensive play in the final 40 minutes, especially the second period, Bishop was the best player on the ice.

The 6-foot, 7-inch netminder stopped all 25 shots he faced in the final two frames and was just about the only reason Maine came out of the contest with a win.

The man who coaches Bishop, Tim Whitehead, said he believes those freshmen – Minnesota’s whole team, really – ultimately will learn how to capitalize on those chances as the season progresses.

“At the end of the year it’s going to be a very, very strong team,” Whitehead said. “I think we’re very lucky to have played them when we did”

Hirsch out for Friday

Senior forward Tyler Hirsch was suspended for Friday’s game as a result of being late to a team meeting Friday.

“We talked about this year how important discipline was going to be with what happened last year,” Lucia said. “We wanted to set some examples early and I think that it was done and I think it was warranted and I think they’re great lessons for everybody.”