Men’s hockey prepares to defend its title

Adam Fink

Minnesota men’s hockey coach Don Lucia never said the exact words, but after making his opening statements during Wednesday’s media day, it was obvious what he was thinking: The 2002-03 version of the Gophers is not the same as last year’s national championship squad.

Losing Hobey Baker winner Jordan Leopold, All-American Johnny Pohl, Jeff Taffe and four-year goaltender Adam Hauser will do that to you.

“This year will be interesting,” the fourth-year coach said. “We have a lot of balance and competition on this team.”

With only five days since practice began, replacing the previously mentioned players is a work in progress.

Despite uncertainty in the lineup, the early expectations have not changed. The Gophers are the top-ranked team in several national polls and WCHA coaches predict Minnesota to finish second in the conference.

Captains Grant Potulny, Nick Anthony and Paul Martin sat next to their coach and rationalized Minnesota’s current situation.

“Last year we expected a lot,” Potulny said, “same with this year. It’s important for everyone in the junior and senior class to lead.”

The talent comes from all of the classes. After two weeks of competing with the freshman, junior Paul Martin sees them as key contributors.

“In previous years freshman might not be counted on too much,” Martin said. “We are going to count on them and hopefully they will step it up. They are so talented.”

Whether answering questions about their offense, defense or their past, the Gophers know there are expectations for any team donning the maroon and gold.

“We have always had a target on the front of our jersey,” Lucia said. “Now we have it on our backs too. Guys have worked hard and we should see the growth of each player.”

Goalie battle

As goalies Justin Johnson and Travis Weber watched senior Adam Hauser perform well in the second half of the season, they talked about their opportunity to shine.

With Hauser gone and a season of sporadic playing time under their belts, sophomores Johnson and Weber are next in line to backstop the Gophers.

Johnson competed in seven games and had a .892 saves percentage. Weber started 10 games and had a .870 saves percentage.

“There is pressure for both of us to come in and perform,” said Weber, a native of Hibbing, Minn. “We are expected to play well. The main thing we want to do is give our team a chance to win.”

Lucia will alternate starting each goalie during every weekend series. A front-runner is expected to emerge by midseason.

Right now Johnson and Weber aren’t worried about winning a starting job. Gaining more experience and confidence is the top priority.

“It is nice to know we will each be playing and learning,” Weber said. “Knowing we aren’t being thrown out there without someone behind us lifts a burden off our shoulders.”

Howe commits

St. Cloud’s Mike Howe, one of the state’s top high school hockey players, has verbally committed to Minnesota, the St. Cloud Times reported Wednesday.

NCAA rules prohibit Lucia from talking about recruits until they have signed a national letter of intent.