T he polls are in and Minnesota, the two-time defending NCAA men’s hockey champion, is the top-rated team in the nation going into the 2003-04season.
As they begin their quest for their third consecutive national championship, the Gophers are certain every team in the country will be gunning for them.
“We don’t have just one or two rivals, as you know, we have a lot of rivals, and everyone’s up to play us,” coach Don Lucia said.
Minnesota returns all but three key contributors from last year’s team, led by captain Grant Potulny and assistant captains Troy Riddle and Keith Ballard.
However, Minnesota will have a slightly different look on defense this season, after mainstays Paul Martin and Matt DeMarchi departed for the New Jersey Devils.
Ballard hopes to step into that top defensive role and provide a model for the more inexperienced blueliners to follow.
“I need to lead by example,” Ballard said. “Doing every drill as hard as I can, doing everything coaches ask me and then a little bit more, I think the new guys pick up on that.”
Lucia has plenty of experienced forwards to fill his lines. Along with Potulny and Riddle, sophomore Thomas Vanek returns to the team, despite being picked fifth overall in June’s NHL draft.
Last season, Vanek led the team in scoring with 31 goals and 31 assists and was named the WCHA rookie of the year.
Vanek was also selected as last year’s Frozen Four MVP.
At Wednesday’s preseason media day, Vanek said he wasn’t ready to leave and is happy to be back.
“Not as happy as I am,” Lucia said.
The Gophers will have several other forwards fighting for ice time this year, including freshman Ryan Potulny, Grant’s younger brother. Lucia said he is not yet sure who will play on which line.
“I always say that coaches don’t determine who plays, players do,” Lucia said. “What I am a big believer in is that a lot of different guys play throughout the year in different roles.”
Arguably, the number one issue facing Lucia going into this season is his goaltender situation. Travis Weber, Minnesota’s primary goalie last season, withdrew from the University for personal reasons before the fall semester started.
Weber’s departure leaves Lucia with junior Justin Johnson and freshman Kellen Briggs competing for the starting spot.
Lucia said he will alternate goaltenders early in the season before making a decision on whom to go with – something Johnson is used to.
“It’s nothing new for the ‘U’ the past couple years here,” Johnson said. “There’s going to be some testing periods.”
The Gophers’ season begins Oct. 10, when they face Maine in the first game of the Nebraska-Omaha/Wisconsin Maverick Stampede. It is the first of several respected nonconference opponents on this season’s schedule.
The Gophers’ conference schedule doesn’t appear any easier, with four other WCHA teams ranked in the nation’s top 15.
“There are no easy games, and there are no easy opponents; we just have to be ready to play each and every night to win games in this league,” Lucia said. “But in the long run, (the league’s difficulty) helps prepare our team for the end of the year.”
With the Gophers favored to repeat this season, Potulny knows he and his teammates have to bring their best into every contest.
“We can’t take any nights off, so when it comes down to the end of the year, we have the upper hand,” Potulny said.
The T-shirts the women’s hockey team sport this year have three words emblazoned on the back: Get it Done.
The phrase might appear vague to the uninformed passerby, but the message is abundantly clear to every member on the team: Get to the NCAA Frozen Four for a third consecutive season. Despite back-to-back appearances, the program has yet to win a game in the NCAA tournament, including the Frozen Four.
Last season ended in disappointment after two losses at the Frozen Four.
The Gophers have a central focus this year.
Senior Kelsey Bills, a second-year captain, said she feels this year’s squad is dedicated to the ultimate goal.
“This year we’re just on a mission,” she said. “A mission to win.”
The third-ranked Gophers have 15 returning players and welcome five freshmen to the squad. Coach Laura Halldorson described her team as “deep in every position, but young on defense.”
The Gophers lost two key defenders from last year’s team in two-time All-American Ronda Curtin and Winny Brodt. But Halldorson believes the new faces can contribute right away.
“We lost a lot of experience down on the blue line,” she said. “But we think that we brought in some good talent that will help us fill that gap.”
Offensively, Minnesota is strong. The Gophers return 70 percent of their total point production from a year ago, including 62 percent from the forward line. The team has nine forwards back this season, who totaled 231 of the squad’s 370 points last year.
Leading scorer Natalie Darwitz returns for her sophomore campaign. A native of Eagan, Minn., Darwitz’s 68 points last year ranked third in school history.
She also ranked third in the WCHA in scoring and sixth in the nation. Darwitz earned first-team All-America honors and, along with teammate Krissy Wendell, was a top-10 finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award, given to the top women’s hockey player in the country.
Minnesota has three exhibition games on its schedule this year, which is new for the program. Halldorson is looking forward to the chance for a preseason assessment of her squad.
“It gives us a chance to really see where we are,” she said. “And I think that opportunity to evaluate our roster will be beneficial.”
The Gophers open their exhibition season Sunday against the Aurora Panthers. The regular season starts Oct. 17 against Ohio State.
Senior captain La Toya Clarke likes the direction in which the team is headed.
“I have no doubt that things are going to come together for us,” she said. “I’m very confident in this team and its abilities.”
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