Gophers prep for prance to Pittsburgh

Minnesota shocked the hockey world with its Frozen Four appearance in 2012.

Minnesota forward Erik Haula plays during the NCAA West regional final against North Dakota State on March 25 at the Xcel Energy Center.

Mark Vancleave, Daily File Photo

Minnesota forward Erik Haula plays during the NCAA West regional final against North Dakota State on March 25 at the Xcel Energy Center.

by Drew Claussen

Oh, what a difference a year makes.

The Gophers men’s hockey team enters the season highly ranked in both preseason polls and is a favorite to return to the Frozen Four.

Last year, the team was coming off a first-round loss in Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs. After being swept by Alaska-Anchorage, Minnesota had questions about many positions heading into the offseason.

But in 2012-13, the Gophers return many of their key players from last year’s NCAA Frozen Four team. The result: much higher goals for a team that has the ability to improve upon last year’s success.

“We were hungry,” head coach Don Lucia said. “It started with our senior group that graduated last spring. … They wanted to make sure that when they came back to Mariucci [Arena], they could look up in the rafters and see they contributed to some of the success here over many years.”

The team loses last year’s captain Taylor Matson, fellow forward Jake Hansen and goaltender Kent Patterson.

Patterson seemed to have a force field around him at times last season when he played all but 20 minutes. Lucia said Patterson helped groom the Gophers’ young defense by keeping the team in games. This year, Lucia said the defense will have to repay the favor by helping out an inexperienced goaltender.

“Both the goalies this year want the opportunity to prove themselves,” defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “As a defensive corps, we realize that we do have some inexperience back there, but it’s not going to change how we play.

Schmidt said no matter who was in net, the defense’s main goal was to block as many shots and opportunities as possible and to allow the goaltender to see the puck.

Junior Michael Shibrowski and freshman Adam Wilcox will vie for the spot between the pipes this season. Lucia said the starter and backup roles have not been assigned yet and there is a small chance the two will split duties.

“That will settle itself out,” Lucia said. “Whether we split for a period of time and somebody emerges, you know they’ll work that out themselves.”

The traditional form of senior leadership will be almost non-existent this year, as defenseman Seth Helgeson is the squad’s only senior. But the team doesn’t lack experience — 40-point scorers Erik Haula, Kyle Rau, Nick Bjugstad and Schmidt all return.

“We do have a young team,” Lucia said. “But we’re also realistic to know that probably we’ll have more than one player leave at the end of the year, too.”

Bjugstad’s return was in question until this summer, as many speculated he would go to the NHL. The then-sophomore forward and Florida Panthers draft pick was coming off his highest goal-scoring season in college with 25 goals.

“It took me a while to decide — obviously I just wanted to weigh my pros and cons,” Bjugstad said. “In the long run, I just felt another year at school would help me develop, and I think our team … on paper we’re pretty good, so we’re another contender this year.”

Joining the returning players is a solid crop of freshmen. The crew got a little weaker in mid-September when Connor Reilly went down with a leg injury, leaving defenseman Brady Skjei as the Gophers’ top freshman.

Lucia said with the team’s depth, it will be tough for any freshman to crack the top-two lines. Last year, Rau stepped onto the top line right away.

“We want to make sure our top-18 players are dressing,” Lucia said. “And if that says we’re going to move a defenseman up to forward for a period of time, we may do that.”

Last year, Minnesota won the MacNaughton Cup, which is awarded to the WCHA’s regular-season champions. This year will be the Gophers’ last chance to win another, as it will join the Big Ten in 2013-14 in the conference’s inaugural season.

“It puts a little more on the line for the WCHA this year,” Schmidt said. “Moving to the Big Ten is going to be a good move for us, but at the same time, the WCHA right now is extremely important for us and our program and our team this year.”

When the Gophers take the ice for Saturday’s exhibition game against Lethbridge, fans will notice a few key improvements to Mariucci Arena. The facility, along with Williams Arena, received $8 million worth of improvements, including new scoreboards, ribbon boards along the façade of the club levels and improved sound systems.