Hockey prepares to begin title defense against No. 15 Ohio State

Adam Fink

With coaches increasing practice intensity and players getting anxious this week, it can only mean one thing: Hockey season is here.

There might not be a national championship on the line, but the Minnesota men’s hockey team isn’t taking this weekend’s season opener lightly.

Top-ranked Minnesota will face No. 15 Ohio State on Saturday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. It will mark the first time the Gophers take the ice since winning the NCAA title last April in the same building.

“It’s back to business,” senior alternate captain Nick Anthony said. “We have been working hard, especially this week, and we are ready to get back to playing.”

The question is which Gophers will be playing on a very deep Minnesota depth chart. The roster spots battle has been ongoing for the entire two weeks of practice.

The tentative starting lines for Saturday’s game weren’t available Thursday afternoon.

Captain Grant Potulny says who ever isn’t playing needs to keep a good attitude and wait for their shot.

“This is our biggest issue as we enter the first game,” the junior forward said. “Everyone has to stay upbeat and support the team. The ultimate goal is to win.”

Defeating the Buckeyes, however, won’t be a walk in the park.

Ohio State returns 20 lettermen including two NHL first-round picks. Forward R.J. Umberger was selected 16th overall after recording 39 points last season. Center Dave Steckel was taken 14 picks later after tallying 22 points.

In addition, intimidation won’t be a factor in the outcome.

“This is a great measure for our team,” Ohio State coach John Markell said. “But we have played before hostile crowds before and I believe we have some very talented players which can match up with them.”

While the two teams haven’t met since the Buckeyes beat Minnesota 6-5 in 1998, Markell can relate to this year’s Gopher team.

Ohio State currently has 18 upperclassmen on its roster. The past two years have been a learning experience for the players and this year the team hopes to improve on last season’s seventh place finish in the CCHA conference.

Minnesota currently has 18 underclassmen on its roster, an experience advantage Markell hopes to capitalize on.

“It takes time for a young team to come together,” the eighth-year coach said. “That might help us out on the scoreboard.”

For both teams it’s a chance to get on the ice, see what they need to improve upon and face an unfamiliar opponent.

But for Minnesota, this weekend has extra special meaning: the freshmen suiting up for the first time, the veterans ready to show how far they have come from last season and a large target on their backs.

“Right now, we are worried about ourselves,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. “We need to get out there and battle. We are ready to get the season going.”

Gopher hockey is set to begin its 81st season at 7:05 Saturday night.

Tickets still available

Limited amounts of tickets are still available for the Gophers game with Ohio State.

Last season, Minnesota set an Xcel Center attendance record of 19,324 in the championship game. The crowd also was the largest to ever watch a hockey game in the state.