Youthful men’s hockey eyes a third national title

by Adam Fink

All 26 players for Minnesota’s men’s hockey team gathered around the center “M” at Mariucci Arena and, for one final time this season, raised their sticks above their heads before banging them along the concrete floor.

The Gophers’ hockey salute on the arena floor completed a five-day journey from Frozen Four participant to national champion Tuesday night at Mariucci Arena before an estimated 1,500 fans.

Minnesota defeated New Hampshire 5-1 on Saturday to earn the school’s fifth title, and second consecutive.

“It hasn’t even sunk in yet,” alternate captain Paul Martin said. “I will probably look back at this and eventually realize how much we accomplished.”

At the end of last year, senior and Hobey Baker winner Jordan Leopold said the 2002-03 campaign would be a rebuilding season.

But last weekend in Buffalo, N.Y., the NHL’s Calgary Flames rookie was forced to eat his words.

“I felt as a team they came together,” said Leopold, who talks to former roommates Grant Potulny, Troy Riddle and Matt Koalska about once a week. “As alumni, it was a great moment to watch (them win the title).”

Unlike last year when leaders like Leopold, fellow seniors Johnny Pohl and Adam Hauser and junior Jeff Taffe left, this off-season doesn’t expect to bring many changes to Minnesota’s lineup.

And that has brought up the term three-peat into the Minnesota locker room.

Only Matt DeMarchi, a physical defensive presence, Nick Anthony and Chad Roberg will complete their eligibility. Anthony, an alternate captain, and Roberg were reserves most of the year.

“We already have set our goals for next season,” Koalska said. “We want the three trophies (WCHA regular-season title, WCHA Final Five championship and a third-straight national title).”

The Gophers are expected to be the preseason favorites to complete the trifecta.

Minnesota will return the leadership of players such as Potulny and Martin, both team captains.

Potulny has been credited with the team’s transition from a good team to a championship team. After missing 22 games with a broken left ankle and ligament damage, the junior returned in mid-January and was instrumental in the team’s stretch run success – 14-1-2 to end the season.

Potulny tallied 23 points on the year, including 15 goals.

The team will also benefit from the expected return of freshman Thomas Vanek, who led the team with 62 points and was voted the Gophers’ most valuable player.

Vanek will work out at Minnesota over the summer and evaluate his options following the NHL Draft on June 21.

“I still need to get stronger and more mature,” the Graz, Austria, native said. “This has been the best week of my life.

“I knew all year how good we were.”

With all four offensive lines returning, the Gophers bring back a corps that scored 189 goals and averaged 4.2 goals per game.

And Travis Weber’s improvement in goal should continue through next season. The sophomore finished the season with a .902 saves percentage while allowing 2.50 goals per game.

With highly regarded recruits Ryan Potulny, Mike Vannelli, Danny Irmen and Jake Taylor joining the team next year, the Gophers will find more competition for playing time than this season.

“A little competition is a good thing,” Martin said. “There’s always room for improvement.”

As Minnesota players signed autographs, passed out their hockey sticks to the fans and waved to friends before heading off the rink Tuesday night, thoughts of this year’s accomplishments turned to the excitement for 2003-04.

“We get to enjoy the moment now,” Koalska said. “But before long, it will be time to get back to work.”

Adam Fink covers men’s hockey welcomes comments at [email protected]