Hype at high level for today’s exhibition

Chris Lempesis

The 85th edition of Minnesota’s men’s hockey team gets its season under way tonight as the Gophers host Alberta in an exhibition contest. Face-off is set for 7:07 p.m. at Mariucci Arena.

Here are six things to look for in 2005-06:

Great expectations

The bar has been set extremely high for Minnesota this season. In fact, it couldn’t be any higher. The Gophers, who finished last season at 28-15-1 (17-10-1 WCHA) on their way to a berth in the Frozen Four, are the preseason No. 1 in both the USA Today/American Hockey Magazine Poll and the WCHA Coaches’ Poll.

“It looks to be like it should be a real exciting year for our team,” coach Don Lucia said at media day on Sept. 29. “But like everybody else that’s just starting out, we have a lot of work to do.”

They certainly do as the road to finishing the season No. 1 looks to be as difficult as ever. It gets exponentially tougher considering Minnesota plays in the WCHA, a conference that held all the spots in the 2005 Frozen Four and should be every bit as competitive this season.

As for those expectations, they are nothing new for this program. While the top ranking is nice, according to junior forward Ryan Potulny, the Gophers aren’t buying into the hype surrounding them.

“Every year, somebody’s rated No. 1 preseason,” he said. “It has to be. It’s never that way at the end of the year; it’s always different teams that you don’t expect.”

Kessel-mania

A big reason for the huge expectation-level is due to the incoming freshman class, quite possibly the best in the nation.

Headlining this class is forward Phil Kessel, widely considered to be the greatest American-born hockey prospect ever. A strong mix of size and speed, the 6-0, 190-pound Kessel had 32 goals and 30 assists (62 points) in 32 games for the U.S. Under-18 Team last season.

“Phil’s obviously such a talented player that, I guess if there’s any spotlight, it’s going to be on him,” said fellow freshman forward Blake Wheeler, himself a fifth overall pick in the 2004 Entry Draft by the Phoenix Coyotes.

Without even playing a second of college hockey, Kessel has already been selected as a second team preseason All-American by College Hockey News. The buzz around Kessel is so strong there’s already talk that he might be a one-year-and-done player. He is thought to be the top prospect for the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.

Kessel admitted it’s “exciting” to hear things like that but also that he’s not thinking about it right now.

“I don’t look ahead,” he said. “A lot of things can happen in the next year and I guess, you just go out there and play hockey and whatever falls into place, falls into place.”

Kessel not alone

Kessel isn’t the only new top-tier talent in the bunch. Look for Wheeler, forward Ryan Stoa, defenseman R.J. Anderson and goaltender Jeff Frazee to contribute this season.

The usual suspects

While a good portion of the chatter has been about the freshmen, it’s not as though the Gophers don’t have any talented upperclassmen.

Minnesota returns its top seven scorers from last season, a far cry from 2004-05 when the team entered the season trying to replace its top four scorers from the year before.

Senior forward Tyler Hirsch (11-33-44), junior forward Danny Irmen (24-19-43), Potulny (24-17-41) and senior forward and new team captain Gino Guyer (12-20-32), among others, should provide the Gophers with a consistent offensive punch.

“These returning guys, I think, more than anything, have to take the next step in their development and show the way,” Lucia said. “Because you can have some freshmen that, on paper, have great track records but there aren’t many freshmen who don’t have (an easy) transition to our league.”

Briggs vs. Frazee

Junior goaltender Kellen Briggs has a career mark of 46-23-3 with a goals against average of 2.53. So, it would figure he would enter the season as the starting goaltender.

That’s not true, however – not exactly. Briggs will split duties between the pipes with Frazee, at least for the early part of the season. Lucia said there was no definite time table for when a consistent starter would be chosen.

Lucia also said he wants to avoid any sort of burn out for Briggs, something both he and Briggs feel occurred last season.

“When I look back at last year, I do think it was my fault we overplayed Kellen,” Lucia said.

Both goalies admitted they want to play as much as possible but also that they weren’t upset by the current arrangement.

“I think it brings out the best of both goalies when both are working hard and competing,” Briggs said. “But, definitely, when it’s time to play, the best goalie will play.”

Defensive improvement

If there was one area of weakness for Minnesota last season, it was on defense. Youth and injuries were the main cause of this and the Gophers figure to be stronger there this year.

“I think that can be a real strength of our team,” Lucia said. “It was a strength of our team the first half of last season and the injuries, I think, had more to do with the performance back there than anything else. I think that the important thing’s going to be for our (defensive) corps to remain healthy.”

The team is looking pretty good on the injury front going into the season. They should welcome back senior Peter Kennedy, who was forced to miss the final 35 games of last season with a hip injury. Lucia said Kennedy had more surgery done in the summer and is not yet at full strength.

Sophomores Alex Goligoski, Nate Hagemo and Derek Peltier, all of whom struggled with injuries over the second half of last season, head into the season more experienced and, more importantly, healthy.

This now-healthy unit will be lead by senior Chris Harrington, one of Minnesota’s assistant captains. Lucia had nothing but praise for the defensive leader.

“I think you’re going to see him have a great senior season,” Lucia said. “He has to lead the way back there.”