Hockey to open season vs. top opponent

Friday's game will be the first time the Potulny brothers take to the ice together.

Lou Raguse

In April 2002, in its NCAA championship game against Maine at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, the Minnesota’s men’s hockey team pushed the game into overtime.

On the power play, then-sophomore Grant Potulny – current team captain – scored his fourth goal of the Frozen Four to give the Gophers a 4-3 victory and their first national championship in 23 years.

Eighteen months and another NCAA championship later, top-ranked Minnesota travels to Omaha, Neb., to take on No. 13 Maine on Friday in the first game of the Maverick Stampede tournament.

However, this being the first game of the season for the Gophers rather than the last, coach Don Lucia is more concerned with his own team than his opponent.

“They are a new team,” Lucia said. “I don’t know their personnel, so all we’re going to do is concentrate on what our team is doing.”

Minnesota’s victory over Maine in 2002 no doubt stands out in Potulny’s mind as one of his most memorable games.

But he, too, views tonight’s contest as little more than a chance to measure the Gophers’ progress against a top-notch opponent.

“I think it’s nice to get going right away and play an opponent that’s been in NCAA tournaments year after year,” Potulny said. “(Maine) is somebody who is battle-tested and is going to be ready to play, so it’s a nice test for our program.”

Maine’s 2002-03 season ended with a loss to Michigan in the NCAA tournament, but the Black Bears posted a 24-10-5 overall record.

The Gophers’ biggest void from last year’s team is on the blue line, where they need to replace Matt DeMarchi and Paul Martin.

Minnesota will look to assistant captain Keith Ballard to make the transition to the team’s top defenseman.

“The loss of Paul Martin is huge,” Potulny said. “But I think Keith would be an All-American this year with or without Paul, and I think the whole defense core will have to step up to fill those shoes.”

One player the Minnesota team said they feel lucky to have back is sophomore Thomas Vanek, who was picked fifth overall in the NHL draft by the Buffalo Sabres, but decided to return to the Gophers this season.

Vanek – last season’s Frozen Four MVP – stayed in Minnesota for most of the summer to train. He said he is stronger, faster and smarter than he was a year ago.

Vanek has never played against Maine but said he is excited for the chance to open the season against a top nonconference team.

“Maine is one of the best programs in college hockey,” Vanek said. “They reload every year.”

Friday’s game will mark the first time Potulny takes to the ice alongside his freshman brother Ryan, one of the Gophers’ top recruits. The two spent time in practice this week skating on the same line.

“He’s been helping me out my whole life, so it’s exciting to be able to learn from him as a teammate now,” Ryan said.

The Minnesota-Maine matchup will be the inaugural game at Nebraska-Omaha’s new Quest Center Omaha.

Nebraska-Omaha plays Wisconsin following the Gophers-Black Bears game. The third-place and championship games will be held Saturday.