Gophers embrace weight of expectations with a talented lineup

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 4, 2012 - 7:00 AM

After last season's Frozen Four trip, they return this fall looking for better things.

There's a different feeling around Mariucci Arena than a year ago, and it has nothing to do with the new scoreboard and snazzy video board that wraps around the arena.

"Expectations are just different," said forward Nick Bjugstad, who passed up a multi-million dollar contract with the Florida Panthers to return for his junior season and was among a handful of players at Gophers media day on Wednesday. "Our goal is a national championship."

A year ago, the Gophers men's hockey team was predicted to, as coach Don Lucia says, finish "in the middle of the pack."

But the Gophers surprised everybody, winning the MacNaughton Cup and making a 20th Frozen Four appearance. So when you return six of your top seven scorers and all six starting defensemen from that team, expectations naturally skyrocket, which explains why the Gophers enter this season tied with defending national champ Boston College atop the USA Today poll and ranked second in the poll.

"Look at us on paper, we've got a great team," said Bjugstad, who had 25 goals and 17 assists last year. "But that doesn't mean anything."

Bjugstad knows the stacked Gophers won't only be targeted by future Big Ten rivals such as Michigan State, which visits next weekend to open the season, but they will be eyed by WCHA rivals such as North Dakota, Denver and Minnesota Duluth, who all want to claim the last WCHA championship -- well, at least the way the conference currently exists.

"Throughout the season, North Dakota, Wisconsin, St. Cloud State, whoever it may be, the stakes are a little more amplified," said the Gophers' Nate Schmidt, who was second in the nation among defensemen in scoring last year (three goals, 38 assists). "The games mean a little more just because it's the last year.

"Whoever takes it all will be reigning champs [forever]. That's a lot of bragging rights. We better be locked and loaded and ready to roll from the beginning of the year."

Loaded lineup

The Gophers return seven of their top nine forwards from a year ago, including new captain Zach Budish (12 goals, 23 assists), leading scorer Erik Haula (20, 29) and Kyle Rau (18, 25), who roared onto the scene as a freshman to be the team's second-leading scorer.

Lucia doesn't expect any freshmen forwards to make similar impacts to Rau if for no other reason than "they have players in front of them" and won't get immediate power-play time.

Plus, the best of the incoming freshman forwards, Connor Reilly, is out for the season because of a knee injury.

But last year, Haula and Nate Condon made significant strides as sophomores. Lucia says it's critical for sophomores Travis Boyd, Sam Warning, Seth Ambroz and Christian Isackson to do the same.

"We need more than [Rau] and Budish and Bjugstad and Haula to be scoring on a nightly basis," Lucia said, adding that Boyd, Warning, Ambroz, Isackson and junior Tom Serratore combined for 15 goals and that the Gophers lost 32 goals from seniors departing.

Blueline decisions

On the blue line, the biggest question is who plays and who sits. Seven defensemen return, but highly touted freshmen Mike Reilly and Brady Skjei are considered locks to play.

The Gophers could redshirt a defenseman by Saturday's exhibition game against Lethbridge or more likely dress seven defensemen or skate a blueliner as a forward.

The Gophers' biggest question is in goal. Kent Patterson played all but 20 minutes last year. But the second-team All-America is gone. From the outset, junior Michael Shibrowski and freshman Adam Wilcox will platoon until somebody emerges as the No. 1.

"They'll work that out themselves," Lucia said.

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