Questions aplenty surround U hockey

Tim Nichols

For the second season in a row, the lords of hockey did not smile upon Doug Woog’s team.
At about this time a year ago, the consensus opinion was that the Gophers’ first bad season in memory was a fluke. But two sub-par seasons in a row is downright frightening for a program that has enjoyed success for most of its 77 years of existence.
What might be scariest of all, however, is the number of question marks that still hover over this team.
Who is going to put the puck in the net now that Wyatt Smith, Reggie Berg and their combined 43 goals and 48 assists from this season are gone? Will the junior class finally fulfill the expectations that were set when they first donned the maroon and gold? And most important, who will lead this team on the ice?
Junior Dave Spehar might be looked to for the answers to all three of those questions. The former Duluth dynamo has become a Minnesota malcontent, as he’s fallen short of the huge expectations that were laid out for him when he joined the program as the state’s all-time leading scorer.
This season, Spehar scored no five-on-five goals until the third-to-last game of the season, was benched in Colorado Springs and has hopscotched across the depth chart.
“I’m not having the greatest year,” Spehar said after Minnesota’s 5-3 win over St. Cloud State. “I need to lay it out on the line. It bothered me.”
Woog and Spehar have butted heads throughout the season, but Woog said he believes that Spehar could become the leader of next season’s Gopher team.
“A player to watch out for is Dave Spehar,” Woog said. “Leadership is very important. It’s tough replacing 40 and 45 goals, but watching him skate, he’s played damned well.”
Besides leadership, the more visible problem facing next year’s Gophers is goal-scoring. Junior forwards Spehar, Nate Miller and Rico Pagel didn’t light the lamp often enough for the Gophers — scoring only 13, six and four goals, respectively.
But instead of counting solely on the juniors to improve, Woog said he expects the freshmen class to fill the void.
“Scoring might be interesting,” Woog said about next season. “If someone is a decent player, he jumps in his second year. If a freshman makes a decent jump, that guy can become a more elite player. Smith, (Brian) Bonin, (Mike) Crowley, they stepped up.”
The freshman class looks promising enough to emerge as significant contributors for the next season. With the exception of the consistent play of defensemen Jordan Leopold, an All-WCHA Third Team and All-Rookie selection, the freshmen struggled mightily in the first half of the season, but finished strong.
John Pohl, who looked like a project in the first half, blossomed in the later stages of the schedule to lead the Gophers most stable line, featuring himself, freshman Erik Wendell and sophomore Stuart Senden.
“They did a great job,” Nate Miller said of the freshmen, “Pohl showed that he can play at this level.”
One position that should not be an issue is goaltender. Freshman Adam Hauser started all but three games, finishing with a 3.47 goals-against average and a 14-18-8 record.
Hauser’s rookie campaign has been a trial by fire. The freshman had to learn how to play at the breakneck speed of the WCHA on the job.
After a heated competition for the starting goaltender position, he was handed the job by default when Willy Marvin decided to leave the team.
“I wasn’t supposed to start,” Hauser said. “Then in the summer I got a call saying (backup goalie Erik) Day busted his knee. Then it was me and Willy, then Willy disappears. I didn’t mind it at all.”
At the end of the season, he might be the Gopher that grew up the most.
“I’m thankful for the way things happened,” Hauser said. “The staff has been great.”
A final question remains, this one concerning Woog himself — will he be back next year?
Woog has faced constant criticism about his team’s performance, his recruiting strategies and the team’s inability to stick with the top teams in the WCHA and the country for two seasons now.
But according to Woog, he plans to be roaming the bench of Mariucci Arena for at least another season.
When asked if he would be returning, he simply answered “Yes.”
“That’s not hedging the question,” Woog said. “If I thought differently, I would have said, `I’ll let you know.'”