Hockey team once again has talent, but can it win it all?

A 4-3 overtime loss. It sounds like just another loss when you leave it at that.

But the No. 1 seeded Minnesota hockey team’s 4-3 overtime loss to fourth-seeded Holy Cross at last season’s NCAA Tournament wasn’t just another loss – it was catastrophic, unfathomable or any other nifty word that means unbelievable.

If you don’t know hockey, try this: It’s like the Duke basketball team losing to a 16-seed at the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

Minnesota was one of the most (if not the most) talented teams in the country. Its 20-1-1 run leading up to the WCHA Final Five was surely indicative of that.

But all that talent wasn’t enough to overcome Holy Cross.

“We lost the emotion Ö and at this time of year, you need to feel emotion,” coach Don Lucia said after that historic upset.

After that loss, the Gophers lost four more. Junior forwards Ryan Potulny and Danny Irmen, sophomore forward Kris Chucko and freshman forward Phil Kessel all left college early for the NHL.

These forwards were Minnesota’s top four goal scorers, accounting for 49.1 percent of the team’s scoring.

So what do all those losses mean heading into this season?

The Gophers are the second-ranked team in the country according to the Preseason USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine Poll and have the No. 3 spot in the USCHO.com/CSTV poll.

I personally put Minnesota fifth on my backup ballot for the US College Hockey Online poll and felt that might be a little high. (Side note: My ballot will be used only if about 10 coaches don’t participate in the poll).

But it doesn’t really matter if I think the Gophers are ranked too high. The bigger question is: what do the writers and coaches across the country see in this team to rank it that high?

Unlike virtually every other sport here at Minnesota, the hockey team is expected to contend for a national title year in and year out.

In 2002 the Gophers won it all. Same thing happened in 2003. The 2004 season ended in the Midwest Regional championship game. In what was supposed to be a down year in 2005, Minnesota made it to the all-WCHA Frozen Four. Last year will be forever remembered for the loss to Holy Cross.

But minus the final 10 days of the season, the Gophers were pegged for an epic national title game confrontation with Wisconsin.

This season, Minnesota brought in a freshman class that’s a who’s who of future NHL stars.

It includes defenseman Erik Johnson, the top pick in the 2006 NHL Draft. He’s the NHL’s first No. 1 overall pick to play college hockey instead of going pro.

Forward Kyle Okposo wasn’t far behind as the seventh pick in the draft. Defenseman David Fischer went 20th. Forward Mike Carman was a third-rounder. Forward Ryan Flynn went in the sixth round.

Forward Tony Lucia – who seemingly has the right hockey genes – joined Flynn in the sixth round. And forward Jay Barriball was picked in the seventh round.

But the Gophers won’t rely solely on their rookies. Fifth-year senior forward Tyler Hirsch led the team in scoring two years ago and is back after redshirting last season. Sophomore defenseman Nate Hagemo also redshirted last season and is back this season. He’ll add needed experience and speed to the defense.

While there’s no denying Minnesota has some of the best talent in the country, once again, that wasn’t really a question last year either. And, unfortunately for the Gophers, all that talent equaled, quite possibly, the biggest upset in college hockey history.

So once again Minnesota has a ridiculous amount of talent, great coaching and a very, very good chance to win another national championship. But as it proved last year, it also has the chance to crash and burn in the final weeks of the season.

Which team will be on display this season?

I’m looking forward to finding out. Because either way, it’s something to write about.

– C.J. Spang welcomes comments at [email protected]