More than eight months after the coronavirus pandemic shut down sports in North America, college hockey, step by step, is returning. That becomes a reality for the Gophers men’s hockey team on Thursday and Fridaywhen it meets Penn State in a season-opening series at 3M Arena at Mariucci.

The 2020-21 season will be the 100th in program history, and the Gophers will celebrate with plenty of pomp amid the challenging circumstance as COVID-19 continues to ravage the sports world. Likely postponements or cancellations promise a tumultuous season. Still, the fact that the puck is about to drop has the Gophers excited.

“Get this darn season started,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said during last week’s Big Ten video conference. “Once we get this train rolling, we’re all going to feed off that.”

For the Gophers, that starts with the opening series against Penn State, a team they were scheduled to face in the Big Ten tournament semifinals before the NCAA shut down winter sports on March 12. The Nittany Lions won the Big Ten regular-season title, and the Gophers needed a win in Happy Valley and likely another in the conference title game to make the NCAA tournament. Instead, they were left wondering what might have been.

“Everyone was pretty confident that we were going to win that game, which was so tough that it got canceled,” Gophers captain Sammy Walker said.

Building on last season

Last season, the Gophers had 11 freshmen on their roster, and the result was growing pains to the tune of a 5-9-4 start. That group began to mature by winning the Mariucci Classic and going on an 8-1 tear into early February. Those freshmen now are sophomores, and that’s a big reason why the Gophers were picked by Big Ten coaches to win the conference.

“You can tell they are just different — on the ice and off the ice,” senior goalie Jack LaFontaine said. “They’re starting to turn into men.”

Added Motzko, “We can’t hide that we’ve got a good hockey team returning. We still have another big step to take, though.”

What should help the Gophers take that next step is a lineup that returns 93% of its goals and 87% of its points from last season, stats that rank first in the nation, according to College Hockey Inc. Motzko needs to see the Gophers’ average of 2.7 goals per game, which ranked 33rd nationally, improve dramatically.

“Our biggest challenge is our group of guys has to take that next step,” he said. “… They’ve got to go from 30 points to 40 points.”

Ending the NCAA drought

For a proud program like Minnesota’s, there would be no better way to celebrate the 100th season of Gophers hockey than returning to the NCAA tournament and making some noise in it. The Gophers haven’t made the tournament since 2017 and haven’t won a game in it since their runner-up finish in 2014.

Their NCAA championship drought has reached 17 years, and former WCHA rivals like Minnesota Duluth (2018 and ’19), Denver (2017) and North Dakota (2016) have hung NCAA banners recently.

Gophers players believe an NCAA return was in the works last March before COVID-19 struck.

“We left some good hockey on the table last year,” said LaFontaine, who played two seasons for Michigan and one season of junior hockey for Penticton before seizing the Gophers starting job in the second half of the past season. “… We had a strong belief that we had the team, we had the personnel, and we had a great group of guys to get there.”

A route back to the NCAA tournament starts with the Gophers facing Penn State, a team that has owned them of late.

The Nittany Lions are 11-2-1 against the Gophers since the start of the 2017-18 season. Penn State scored 8-2 and 6-3 victories in Minneapolis last November before Minnesota held third-period leads in a 3-3 tie and a 3-2 loss in State College in February.

“They’ve kicked our butt the last handful of years,” Motzko said. “We were closing the gap, but we hadn’t closed it. They were a better hockey team than us a year ago.

“… But I’ll tell you: We wanted to play that [Big Ten semifinal] game.”

It’s not just that game, it’s a whole new season the Gophers want to savor. Scott Reedy, the team’s leading goal-scorer with 15 last season, sees how fleeting a college career can be.

“As a senior, you only get four years to do this thing,” he said. “We’re definitely coming with a chip on our shoulder from last year.

“We’ve got all the motivation from last year piling on this year.’’