Year highlighted by late-season run

A four-game winning streak led Minnesota into the NCAA Tournament.

Brian Deutsch

;WORCHESTER, Mass. – They say the Minnesota men’s hockey team doesn’t rebuild, it reloads.

After this year, they won’t say that anymore.

The Gophers’ up and down season ended over the weekend with a 5-2 loss to Boston College in the first round of the NCAA Northeast Regional – a game few believed the team would be at, given their performance in the regular season.

“(The team) should feel good. I told them ‘Hey, be proud of how you competed and how you played to get here,’ ” coach Don Lucia said. “It hasn’t been easy for this group all season long, and that’s the way it had to be. To get to this point (from) where we were a couple months ago, it says a lot about them that they stayed with it and stayed together.”

Lucia’s ninth season was quite similar to his first in the 1998-1999 campaign.

That year was the only season under the Grand Forks native that the team finished with a worse record than this year’s 19-17-9 mark.

It was also the only other time Minnesota opened the playoffs on the road, prevailing in both cases.

Bad start, better end

Minnesota began the season with a horrendous 0-4 start in Western Collegiate Hockey Association play – the team’s worst opening record since the conference was formed in 1959.

Without a consistent contributor, the Gophers finished the first half one game over .500 and at one time fell out of the national polls.

The second half didn’t go any better for the Gophers, who won just six out of the team’s final 20 games before the start of the playoffs.

But it took one playoff game (a 1-0 double overtime loss to Minnesota State) before the Gophers went on a four-game winning streak – their longest of the year – to reach the WCHA Final Five Championships.

“Throughout the year, people were doubting us because we were losing some difficult games,” junior forward Blake Wheeler said. “Down the stretch we kind of rectified that and started getting some bounces our way.”

But the offense’s inability to score reappeared as the Gophers lost the title game to Denver 2-1.

The Pioneers were one of several WCHA teams that seemed to have Minnesota’s number all year – the Gophers were winless against them and managed just one goal in each of the five meetings this season.

“This team has nothing to hang its head about,” Wheeler said. “You never want to talk about moral victories but there’s a lot of character in that locker room. We fought hard to the very end.”

Overtime, every time

The Gophers competed in a school record 16 overtime games over the season including four of their six WCHA playoff games.

The extra period was not kind to Minnesota in the beginning – the team went a winless 0-5-8 in its first 13 overtime games before winning its final three games that went past regulation.

Best ‘O’ is a good ‘D’

With three top defensemen gone from the previous year, it was believed a young corps of blue-liners, led by senior captain Derek Peltier, would need to be saved by the typical high-powered Gophers offense.

Instead it was the other way around.

Freshman goalie Alex Kangas’ presence in goal was a major part in the early maturation of the defense – he was the nation’s top freshman keeper behind Colorado College’s Richard Bachman.

“I don’t think anybody could have anticipated the kind of season we had this year,” the freshman said.

Kangas’ year ended with school records in save percentage (.930) and goals against average (1.98).

“Certainly it starts with your goaltender; he’s been brilliant,” Lucia said after Minnesota’s 2-1 OT win over Colorado College in the WCHA semifinals.

“The one constant has been our goaltender; he’s kind of put the team on his back and willed us to win.”

Having Kangas stick around for at least the near future will be a rock for the Gophers’ coaching staff to rest on in terms of goaltending.

Junior goalie Jeff Frazee only played in two games in the second half after coming into the season as the team’s No. 1 netminder.

Frazee hasn’t spoken about his future, and Lucia said earlier this year that he expects Frazee to again compete for the starting job next season as a senior.

But Frazee isn’t the only question in goal for the Gophers – they also have to find an adequate replacement for graduating senior Brent Solei.

Solei, a walk-on who finished his career undefeated (his only career start came this year in a 5-1 win against Wayne State), diligently served as the team’s practice goalie for four years.

The task for Lucia will be to find at least a Div. III caliber goalie willing to join the team knowing full well that he will see little or no ice time over his career at the University.

Coming, going, returning

Minnesota’s offense took a big hit when junior forward Ryan Stoa went down with a knee injury in the second game of the season. But he’ll be back next year for his senior campaign.

Former forward Kyle Okposo won’t be. The St. Paul native signed a contract with NHL’s New York Islanders before the team began the second half.

The team suffered another blow in the playoffs when senior forward Tom Pohl suffered a severe brain injury that ended his career at Minnesota.

Wheeler, who led the team in points this year with 35 (15 goals, 20 assists), also hasn’t decided whether he’ll be back next year.

But either way, a highly touted group of 10 incoming freshmen will make next year’s squad very different, according to the team’s assistant captain.

“This program has a way of bringing in some pretty talented players, they have some pretty talented freshmen coming in next year,” the forward said. “No matter what happens with me, this program is always going to have quality, talented players coming in and stepping up.”