– Any reference to “elite” is something Don Lucia never embraced when discussing this year’s national runner-up — even after the Gophers advanced to Saturday night’s NCAA hockey championship game.

Consistent, well-balanced, team-oriented and driven were how the Gophers coach preferred to describe his team.

The admirable characteristics produced much more success than most thought the young team would. This combination could only go so far, though, and it was apparent in a 7-4 loss to Union in Saturday night’s Frozen Four final.

The Dutchmen displayed several elite characteristics throughout their run to a first national championship. Daniel Ciampini scored four goals and a hat trick in the Frozen Four. Shayne Gostisbehere had three points in the finale. The offense as a whole scored 12 goals.

These sort of elite efforts were missing for the Gophers.

“Most really elite teams have some really dominant players. We don’t have a bunch of dominant players,” Lucia said. “We have a bunch of good players that have bought into playing with each other.”

The Gophers’ buy-in produced a significant return. They lost several elite players to professional hockey last spring and relied on a large freshman class, but won a Big Ten regular-season championship, won the West Regional and advanced to the national championship.

It could have passed for a rebuilding year. The freshmen wanted more.

After just a month of the season, the young team had survived tests against New Hampshire, Boston College and Notre Dame.

Lucia wasn’t quite ready to classify his team as elite after this early stretch. Five-plus months later, with a national championship on the line, he still wasn’t ready to offer up the title.

“Almost all of us had played with each other in some point of our career, so I thought we had a lot of confidence coming in,” forward Taylor Cammarata said about the freshmen’s expectations entering the season. “Coming to Minnesota your job is to get to the Frozen Four, and we did a very good job.”

This year’s effort proved that sharing the wealth can go a long way. Last year proved superstars can carry a team. With nearly half of the scoring done by freshmen this season, the two styles have the potential to merge next year.

Freshmen Cammarata, Justin Kloos and Hudson Fasching scored three of the Gophers’ four goals in Saturday night’s championship game, proving that the trio has the ability to fulfill the role of elite players. And depending on who returns next season, the well-rounded effort that fueled this year’s team will take care of itself.

“A lot of our scoring came from our freshman and sophomore class. The juniors are going to be great leaders next year. So I think we have a bright future with Gophers hockey here,” senior forward Tom Serratore said.

The question that remains is who will return? Co-captain Nate Condon, Serratore, Jake Parenteau, Justin Holl and Michael Shibrowski will all be lost to graduation. The small departing senior class means 79 percent of the Gophers’ regular skaters should return.

That’s if professional hockey doesn’t lure some of them away. Standout defensemen Mike Reilly and Brady Skjei will be heavily pursued, as will forwards Kyle Rau and Fasching. Goalie Adam Wilcox is another significant target. Twelve of the Gophers’ 14 drafted players still have at least one year of college hockey eligibility remaining.

Another possible uncertainty involves associate head coach Mike Guentzel, who is considered to be in the running for the Colorado College head coaching job. He spent one season, 2008-09, as an assistant on the CC staff and had a son that played for the Tigers.

Early departures or not, expectations are no longer unknown, but demanding.

“We knew we had a good season. We lost in the championship. That’s the two things we know and we don’t really need to have any more reflection on it,” Wilcox said. “Now it’s time to take a break from hockey. ... We have a bright future. ... We’ll have a good team.”