Five for ’15: Gopher Hockey at the Start of the New Year

by Ben Gotz

After spending almost a month refreshing and reflecting on an early schedule that didn't always go as planned, the No. 8 Gophers will return to the ice this weekend in the Mariucci Classic.

The Gophers finished 9-4-1 at the break, but had several disappointing stretches of play after entering the season ranked as the top team in the country.

"Overall, I think we underperformed our first half. We’re definitely not happy," redshirt sophomore forward Connor Reilly said. "We come here because we have high expectations. We expect to win, we expect to be a contender. The thing we’ve got to do right now is start playing to our potential and maximize our opportunities and talents."

The Gophers will begin their season again at home, hosting No. 9 Massachusetts-Lowell, No. 18 Merrimack and RIT in the Mariucci Classic tournament Jan. 2 and 3. As the team begins a new part of the season in a new year, here's five things happening around the Gophers hockey program to look out for:

1. Mariucci Classic

The Mariucci Classic will comprise two of the Gophers last four non-conference games, with the other two coming in the North Star Cup. The tournament will be one of the team's last chances to compete against top quality competition before shifting to conference play.

With only one Big Ten team ranked besides Minnesota right now (Penn State at No. 20), the Gophers know they have to make a good impression against top-quality competition while they still have the chance.

"These are good teams, really good teams," senior forward Seth Ambroz said. "That’s what great about coming back here and going right back into the fire."

Redshirt sophomore forward Connor Reilly said the team will have plenty of family in attendance since the tournament is taking place right around the holidays. The Gophers, 5-1-0 at home this year, know hosting the tournament gives them a big advantage over the weekend.

"For us, it’s kind of a pride thing," senior forward Travis Boyd said. "Teams come into this rink and they shouldn’t win."

2. World Juniors

Three Gophers are not back with the rest of the team practicing, as they are still up in Canada competing for their home countries. Sophomore forward Hudson Fasching and freshman defenseman Ryan Collins were selected be apart of the United States roster for the 2015 IIHF World Juniors, while freshman forward Leon Bristedt was chosen to represent Sweden.

The U.S. team has started out the tournament successfully, with wins over Finland, Germany and Slovaki in round-robin group play. The team will play Canada on Wednesday to determine the winner of Group A before advancing to the quarterfinals on Friday, Jan 2. Sweden swept Group B and will also advance.

Back home, Connor Reilly said it's been fun watching his teammates compete on the international level.

"I’ve been watching as much as I can," Reilly said, also saying he noticed an interesting habit from his fellow forward, Fasching.

"It’s kind of weird. I didn’t ralize he was always sticking his tongue out when he scores a goal," Reilly said. Fasching may hear about that when he is back in U.S. territory.

3. Missing Men

The Gophers will be shorthanded for the Mariucci Classis with three men engulfed in international competition, and junior defenseman Brady Skjei will also be out due to injury.

Skjei, who missed time earlier in the season with a lower body injury, will not compete in the tournament according to Lucia, and is "50-50" for the team's series against Michigan the following week.

The Gophers made a reluctant habit of playing shorthanded during the first stretch of the season due to injuries to Skjei and senior forward Travis Boyd, and they're not sweating playing shorthanded now.

"I don’t think it will affect us too much," Ambroz said, adding the team had talented players who could step up in the lineup. "It’s going to be exciting to see what happens."

4. Resolutions

The time off gave the Gophers time to reflect on the first portion of the seeason, and to plan ahead for the rest of the road.

Ambroz said members of the team were trying to do too much. Lucia mentioned the team's five-on-five hockey was still not where it needed to be.

But Travis Boyd said he observed something while nursing his injury that the team needed to fix.

"The big thing I noticed was that just it didn’t look like maybe we were all in at times or we were competing all the time," Boyd said. "That Duluth series it was pretty evident to me that they wanted it. They wanted to beat us two times. They wanted to sweep us, they wanted it bad. It just seemed  like maybe we thought it was going to be easy or maybe we would just roll over them but they came out with a lot of energy and a lot of compete and I don’t think we matched their intensity at all."

When the Gophers take the ice again on Friday, they want to come out differently.

"It’s going to be a big indication on how our second half is going to go, how we come out this weekend and play," Boyd said.

5. Mariucci Upgrades

One thing the hockey program is looking forward to in 2015 is expected upgrades in Mariucci Arena. The arena's lower levels are expected to be torn apart and redone in the fall, Lucia said. 

"This whole area would be ripped out and redone," Lucia said. "We’d basically start over down here."

The funding for the project is getting close according to Lucia, and he said the team hopes to have the lower levels redone sometime in the fall.