Minnesota set to chase national title

The Gophers will enter the season as the first-ranked team in the nation.

Ben Gotz

When Minnesota head coach Don Lucia looked back at the preseason predictions for each college hockey league last season, he found only one that was correct.

Big Ten coaches didn’t consider Lucia’s team, which went on compete in the NCAA championship game, as the best in the conference.

And that’s why Lucia and his players aren’t taking their No. 1 ranking in two major preseason polls seriously.

“All it’s saying is that we’re good on paper,” senior forward Seth Ambroz said. “You still have to be able to play.”

Gophers players said they have a lot of work to do to increase their chances of making it to the NCAA championship again — and this time, win.

“You’ve got to be humble. You’ve got to be hungry,” junior defenseman Mike Reilly said. “You’ve got to come into each year with a chip on your shoulder.”

The Gophers return much of the roster from last year, especially when it comes to the team’s top lines. The players who scored 128 of the team’s 143 goals last year are back with the team.

But Lucia still plans to tinker with the team’s line combinations this weekend in an exhibition game against the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.

“It gives me an opportunity to experiment,” Lucia said. “We’ll look at some different combinations.”

But there’s one position Lucia said he does not plan to tinker with, barring injury: goaltender.

That’s because junior Adam Wilcox, the inaugural Big Ten player of the year and a second-team All-American, returns to the net for the team.

“I don’t have to worry about who the goalie is,” Lucia said. “Adam wants to play every game, and he’s put himself in a position to have that right to do that.”

During the offseason, it was questionable whether Wilcox would return to the Gophers. He had the option of turning pro after his sophomore season.

But Wilcox, who was taken 178th overall in the 2011 NHL draft, decided the time wasn’t right for him to leave the program.

“Deciding to go pro, it’s really just timing,” Wilcox said. “If you go too early, you’re not ready, and it’s really going to hurt you. If you go too late, you might miss your opportunity. This is the choice I made at the end of the day, and I’m happy I made it.”

Wilcox was not the only player who could have left the Gophers for a potential pro career. Reilly, senior forward Kyle Rau, junior defenseman Brady Skjei and sophomore forward Hudson Fasching all put potential NHL careers on hold to return to the team.

For senior defenseman Ben Marshall, his teammates’ decisions to stick around are a reflection of the team’s strong chemistry.

“There was a lot of speculation this summer about guys leaving. I think that identifies why we are and how we are such a good team together,” Marshall said. “All these guys wanted to come back, and they wanted to make it to the last game of the year. We’re such a close group, and that’s why we do so well.”

To make it to the last game of the year again, the Gophers will have to move past a hard loss — one that Lucia didn’t revisit until last month.

The Gophers said they aren’t backing down, adding that the program always has high expectations.

“I hope we make it to the last game and win it,” Rau said. “That’s about the best goal that there can be, and that should be the only goal here at this program.”