Subplots galore in exhibition against U.S. National Under-18 Team

Future Gophers and one player they hope to woo will be in town Saturday.

Ben Goessling

His team got two days off earlier this week, but the way Minnesota men’s hockey coach Don Lucia is working these days, a bye week doesn’t mean much.

Lucia drove to Sioux Falls, S.D., and back Wednesday, arriving home just after 1 a.m.

And he forgot about Valentine’s Day.

“It’s just another day,” he said. “It’s a busy time with the playoffs in high school hockey. You’re trying to see kids play, and we’ve got kids coming in for visits on Sunday through Tuesday. I told my wife I’d see her in 10 days.”

Oh, and by the way, he’s trying to tinker with his hockey team, too.

Minnesota hosts the U.S. National Under-18 Team in an exhibition game Saturday night, and while the weekend will be in large part about Phil Kessel’s official recruiting visit, the Gophers would also like to iron out some of the kinks stemming from a 1-6-1 record in their last eight home games.

“It’s good to prepare for a game like we normally would,” forward Ryan Potulny said. “Our mentality right now is that we’ve got to make a run for it, and we pretty much have to bear down.”

While Saturday’s game won’t exactly be business as usual for the Gophers – starting goaltender Kellen Briggs won’t dress, and Lucia might rotate Justin Johnson and freshman Brent Solei in net – they will face what might be the most-talented group of 17- and 18-year-olds in the U.S. National Team Development Program’s seven-year history.

The team won the gold medal at the Five Nations Cup in Sweden last week and boasts an

11-9-4 record against college teams, including a 4-3 win over Michigan State on Jan. 28.

Kessel and Peter Mueller (who has committed to the Gophers for the 2006-07 season) are thought to be the top two U.S.-born skaters eligible for the 2006 NHL entry draft.

Defenseman Jack Johnson, a Michigan recruit, is the second-ranked prospect for the 2005 entry draft, according to the Red Line Report scouting service.

And Ryan Stoa and Jack Skille, who have committed to Minnesota and Wisconsin, respectively, are thought to be potential first-round picks.

But the player the Gophers will have their eyes on the most is goalie Jeff Frazee, who signed a letter of intent to play for Minnesota next fall and could find himself making an early audition for the starting job this weekend.

And with Briggs struggling, Frazee knows his time is now.

“In some ways, it is like an audition,” he said. “I want to make a good first impression right away and show the coaches what I can do. I can’t wait for the game.”

Lucia didn’t quite see it that way, saying most recruits are either “great or too nervous” in games such as these.

But he, like the rest of the Gophers, is a little too busy to look ahead.

“We just want to get better at what we do. We are what we are right now,” Lucia said. “All the guys (on the U.S. team) will be college players, and it’s good to play a high-end team.”

Howe hoping to return

Forward Mike Howe, who has been out for three weeks with an undisclosed medical condition, visited a doctor Thursday and could practice today. There is also an outside chance the freshman could play Saturday if cleared.

Kessel comes to town

After the Under-18 team plays at Minnesota State-Mankato on Sunday, Kessel will be on campus until Tuesday with Frazee and Stoa to make his official visit.

Kessel’s father, Phil Kessel Sr., said Phil Kessel hopes to have a decision by March 1, and while Minnesota and Wisconsin are thought to be the front-runners, Frazee did a little campaigning for Minnesota.

“Ryan and I think he’s coming to Minnesota,” Frazee said. “I’ve played with Phil for eight years, and he and Ryan have been together forever. We’ve got a long history with him.”