Gophers open play with weekend road series in Alaska

Minnesota plays Alaska Anchorage Friday and Alaska Fairbanks Sunday.

Gophers forward Justin Kloos controls the puck while playing against Michigan in Mariucci Arena on Feb. 26, 2016.

Joe Sulik

Gophers forward Justin Kloos controls the puck while playing against Michigan in Mariucci Arena on Feb. 26, 2016.

Drew Cove

The Gophers looked to tie up some loose ends Wednesday when they held one of their last practices before they open up their season this Friday in Anchorage, Alaska.

The reigning Big Ten champions have seen some changes in their team in the past few months but look to count on some veterans for a comfortable start.

“[I’m] more comfortable with everything,” said senior forward Justin Kloos. “As far as knowing my duties, making sure communication with coaches and the media [is clear] is a little more stress-free this year.”

Though the team hasn’t officially announced its letter-wearers for the upcoming season, it’s expected that Kloos will resume his role as team captain while senior defenseman Jake Bischoff and redshirt senior forward Connor Reilly will serve as alternate captains.

The core leadership group has already had one season to build chemistry and should be able to capitalize on its abilities even more this season.

The team has an advantage that much of last season’s roster is still intact, and players are familiar with each other.

The No. 13 Gophers only lost three players to graduation and gained six freshmen. Junior forward Mikel Szmatula is also eligible to play this season after sitting a year due to transfer rules.

Forward Rem Pitlick, last year’s United States Hockey League Player of the Year and leading scorer, and defenseman Ryan Lindgren, a former U.S. Under-18 National Team captain, are big rookie adds for Minnesota.

“I think it’s important,” said head coach Don Lucia. “I really like what I’ve seen from the seniors right now. I look throughout our lineup and see guys that have become better players.”

Lucia said he believes the best thing for the team right now is to start playing games. He said the team has squeezed what they can out of practice and need to implement the methods from practice into real games.

Though the team does gain young talent and has a wealth of experience in its older players, there are still some holes to be filled.

One is in the loss of forward Hudson Fasching. Fasching was Minnesota’s second-best scorer last season and decided to forgo his senior year to sign a pro contract with the Buffalo Sabres.

“He had a great junior season,” Lucia said. “We will probably miss that big-body presence that he provided.”

The Gophers also lost two defensemen to early departures. Michael Brodzinski left to begin his pro career with the San Jose Sharks while Nick Seeler left Minnesota after just one season to sign with the hometown Wild.

This gives Bischoff ample opportunity to lead the blue line in the coming season. He is the only senior among the nine defensemen on the team.

“This is my fourth year now. I know the ropes, the systems that Guentz [associate head coach Mike Guentzel] was trying to teach us,” Bischoff said. “I think, being around for a while, I’m able to really answer some of the questions they have and just try to be there to help in whatever way I can to make them feel comfortable out there.”

The team is under even more pressure to perform this season after failing to make the NCAA Tournament last year.

The Gophers have earned five consecutive conference titles and are pegged to add another, but they hope to get out to a better start in early games that make a difference in the long run — especially when it comes to postseason evaluation.

“It’s huge,” Kloos said. “You can tell how much non-conference matters. We were playing pretty well at the end of the year, and we lost to a good team, and weren’t able to make it.”