Line combinations are unsettled and power-play groupings unknown as the Gophers men’s hockey team enters its final week of preparation before next weekend’s regular-season opener.
The uncertainties place extra value on Saturday’s home exhibition game against Lethbridge, a college team from Alberta. Unlike the past two seasons, coach Don Lucia’s picture of how his team will operate still is developing.
Eight freshmen and seven sophomores moving into roles left open from graduations and NHL signings has Lucia unsure what the preseason warm-up will show. Up until Saturday, his on-ice time with the team has been limited to chunks of 30 minutes throughout the week.
“We usually have the power play set and just go,” Lucia said. “Now we’ll just throw pieces of the puzzle on the table and start putting it together. We don’t know who can play with who.”
The Gophers’ seven defensemen have been skating with everyone. The variety has helped team chemistry, sophomore Mike Reilly said.
The unknown also can lead to more individuals stepping up, senior defender Jake Parenteau said. Without several obvious go-to scorers and prominent defensemen, he expects the whole team to be that guy this season.
“It’s kind of open right now,” Reilly said. “We’ve got [Kyle] Rau and [Nate] Condon down the middle, though, and those are two great leaders that are going to be impact players for us. … So I’m looking forward to see who is going to be able to step up and be put in situations maybe they haven’t been in the past.”
The Gophers only will get the one exhibition warm-up. They officially open their season against Mercyhurst next Friday at home.
• An official announcement on the renewal of the Gophers-North Dakota regular-season rivalry could be around the corner. Multiple news outlets recently cited unnamed sources that confirmed a contract beginning with the 2016-2017 season. Lucia said on Big Ten hockey media day it already had been decided the rivalry would return in three years once Notre Dame comes off the Gophers’ schedule. The Gophers athletic department would not confirm the reports.
• Lucia’s participation in Sunday’s Twin Cities Marathon will carry extra significance. His run will help raise money for Defending the Blue Line, which helps provide military children with hockey equipment, money for hockey camps and association fees and NHL game tickets.