Gophers open season in U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game against Black Bears

Minnesota will open its season without top goalie Kellen Briggs.

Chris Lempesis

The last time Minnesota’s men’s hockey team faced Maine at the Xcel Energy Center, on April 6, 2002, the result was an instant classic.

The Gophers defeated the Black Bears 4-3 in overtime to win their first national title in 23 years.

Cut to 4 1/2 years later and the teams again will meet at the Xcel Energy Center. And while it’s fair to say the game won’t have as much at stake, it is still a meaningful one for Minnesota.

The youthful Gophers, ranked third in the nation (according to the preseason poll) to start the season, will get a good gauge of where they’re at as they face 11th-ranked Maine at 7:07 tonight. The game is the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game.

Take a look at the roster. With nine freshmen on the 25-player roster, every early season game takes on extra importance for Minnesota (27-9-5 overall last season) as that youth will try to get its collective feet wet sooner rather than later.

Add to that the fact that the Gophers will have four new centers, guaranteeing all new line combinations, and Friday’s game definitely is not a throw-away contest.

“More than any other year, (this year is) a huge puzzle,” said coach Don Lucia. “And there’s a lot of pieces there but, boy, at this early stage, we don’t have any idea of how the puzzle should fit together and who should really be playing with who and all that.”

It also holds value for Minnesota because of the talent level and experience of its opponent.

Maine (28-12-2) brings back three of its top five scorers from last season, including senior forwards Josh Soares (15-26-41) and Michel Léveillé (16-24-40). The pair were both in the top 10 in scoring for Hockey East last season.

In addition, the Black Bears have four of their top six defensemen, eight of their top 12 forwards and their starting goaltender back on board.

“They’re a lot older and they’ll be a physical team and they’ll be in your face and not give you any space,” Lucia said. “So we’ll have to fight for every inch.”

All of this puts Minnesota in the unenviable position of having to try to figure out some things about itself and win the game against a quality opponent at the same time.

Junior forward Ben Gordon thought differently, though, saying he thinks the process will be an exciting one.

And, according to sophomore forward Blake Wheeler, the team is ready for the process to begin.

“We think we’re prepared,” Wheeler said. “We really don’t have that much time to get prepared before the game. But we’ve learned all we can learn and we just gotta let it all hang out on Friday.”

Exhibition game Sunday

The Gophers will play another game this weekend, a Sunday night exhibition contest against Lethbridge at Mariucci Arena. Game time is set for 7:07 p.m.

For a team with so many new faces, Lucia’s hopes for the game are simple.

“Just to play people,” he said. “It’s truly an exhibition game.”