Despite gains, it’s an early offseason

No chance for an NCAA three-peat, but the U did win the WCHA playoff title.

Lou Raguse

Monday marked the start of the offseason for Minnesota’s men’s hockey team – the first offseason to start before April since 2001.

And for players returning for the 2004-05 season, the goal is to get right back to work and fight for a return to the NCAA Frozen Four.

“Next season starts in two weeks for us,” junior Jake Fleming said. “We’ll get into the weight room and start preparing physically.”

The Gophers finished the season 27-14-3, and despite failing to defend their two consecutive national titles, they, in many ways, had just as successful a season.

“We won 27 games, we won our playoff title and made it to the NCAA quarterfinal,” coach Don Lucia said. “I think we had a great year.”

Minnesota played its best hockey of the season in the WCHA Final Five on March 19-20, which they won by beating Minnesota-Duluth and North Dakota.

The Bulldogs eliminated the Gophers a week later by a 3-1 margin. But when playing in single-game elimination playoffs, Lucia said, running into a hot goaltender is sometimes all it takes.

“When you get to the NCAA, you see nothing but good teams,” Lucia said. “But Duluth deserved to beat us. They beat (us) five out of six times. They proved they were the better team.”

Minnesota-Duluth will face Denver in the NCAA Frozen Four on April 8, and Minnesota players will get to reflect on their season and start looking forward to next year.

The Gophers lose seniors Grant Potulny, Troy Riddle, Matt Koalska, Jon Waibel and Joey Martin to graduation, and it remains to be seen whether junior Keith Ballard and sophomore Thomas Vanek will return next season or opt for the NHL.

Losing those players leaves a void on the team in terms of leadership, specialty teams and offensive production.

Fleming said that despite the big losses, next year will be a chance for his classmates to produce more and make a name for themselves as seniors.

“I’m excited about next year,” Fleming said. “It’s obviously sad to be losing those guys – them being the heart of the team for the last four years – but it’s a great opportunity to step into those roles.”

And who will come forward as the team’s leaders next season?

“That’s a good question,” Lucia said. “Ballard is the one guy that would be the natural captain next year – beyond that, we don’t know who’s going to emerge. We have some quiet kids, so we’ll see how it goes over the summer and who emerges in the fall.”

If Ballard doesn’t return next year, the Gophers defense will take a big hit.

“A lot of the D-corps relies on Keith,” junior Judd Stevens said. “If he leaves, there are six other guys coming back and some good recruits who will have to step up.”

Although the Frozen Four probably isn’t as fun when forced to watch it on television, bearing the weight of being two-time defending champions and fighting through slumps and injuries to finish where they did is an accomplishment Lucia is proud of.

“I was very happy for our kids that they came as far as they did over the course of the season,” Lucia said. “They get to hang a banner, and not many kids get to do that.”