Traveling the vast stretches of Ireland's countryside allowed Kyle Rau valuable time to ponder his hockey future.

The long bus rides from town to town were a regular part of his summer studying abroad with teammates Adam Wilcox and Sam Warning. In-between doing schoolwork and spotting castles among the endless greenery, Rau's mind drifted back across the Atlantic Ocean to frozen Mariucci Arena, where the scrappy forward had reigned for the past three seasons.

The captain, leading scorer and second-team All-America already had left his mark on the storied program. The Florida Panthers, holders of Rau's NHL draft rights, thought it was time for him to move on from college hockey after the special junior year he put together.

Accompanying Rau's Mariucci memories, however, was an unsatisfied feeling.

"I'm a thoughtful person," Rau said of his months-long decision. ''Once I did all the background I needed to, I was pretty much ready to [make a decision]."

In late summer, on a sunny Florida beach at the Panthers' developmental camp, Rau announced he would be the final Gopher to re-up for another run at an NCAA championship. Last year's national runner-up finish would not be his last college hockey experience.

Junior defenseman Mike Reilly already had kept his promise to his twin-brother teammates, Connor and Ryan, and told them he would skate with them once again.

Brady Skjei, a fellow junior defenseman and the Gophers' lone first-round draft pick, had told the New York Rangers he wanted another year to get bigger and stronger.

Junior goaltender Adam Wilcox had determined he would find the best competition this winter in another year of college.

Hudson Fasching didn't even consider the option after an impressive freshman season, though many thought the big forward was ready to make the jump.

That foursome was back, and they waited patiently for their captain to make his decision.

"I heard from most of the guys, and that played into [my decision]," Rau said. "I wanted to know who was coming back. That played into how good our team was going to be.

"It shows that we are all sticking together, and we want to give it another run. I think we're all kind of in the same boat together and went through the same thing. … We've got a lot of talent."

That talent was rated No. 1 in both preseason college hockey polls for the first time since 2003 — the last season that ended with a national championship celebration in Dinkytown.

Minnesota Duluth will be the Gophers' first test. The in-state rivals open the season against one another at the Ice Breaker tournament in South Bend, Ind., on Friday afternoon.

'Two feet in'

The recommitment that had the biggest impact on other players' decisions was done quietly last spring.

Wilcox avoided a formal announcement, and while people whispered about his future, his team was reassured he would return.

The goaltender was labeled by teammates and coaches as the Gophers' best player and provided the necessary protection while a young team grew up over the course of the season. He was the Big Ten Player of the Year and Goaltender of the Year, a Hobey Baker Award Top 10 finalist and among the three Mike Richter Award finalists.

The Gophers entered the national championship game with college hockey's second-best team defense, allowing an average of only two goals a game.

"Like any team, you need your best players, and Adam was our best player all last year," Gophers coach Don Lucia said.

Reilly said when he heard his roommate was coming back for another season, his own decision got a lot easier.

"You gotta see what they're doing, because if they came back, especially a guy like Wilcox who is probably the best goaltender in the nation, it's a huge get to get him back here," Reilly said. "You gotta have two feet in if you're going to stay, and we all do. We've all just got one goal in mind to be playing on that last day of the national championship and hopefully win it all."

Reilly might have given up the most to return for his junior season. The offensive-minded defenseman was the Gophers' lone first-team All-America and was chosen the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. The desire to add size and continue playing college hockey with his brothers kept him home.

Skjei, a 2012 first-round draft pick of the New York Rangers, felt the weight of telling his future employer he wasn't ready to sign, though they thought otherwise.

"I got a lot of pressure from New York, but they were happy with my decision," Skjei said. "I think if one or two guys left, it would have been a little different decision. Having Mike back and Wilcox coming back, that was kind of my huge thing. If [Wilcox] is back, I'm sure staying. So it's consistent, all around."

Fasching's future took a twist midway through last season when the Los Angeles Kings traded him to the Buffalo Sabres. Analysts argued that the big, speedy forward could fit into the Sabres' struggling system right away.

Leaving was never in Fasching's plans, he said, though he thought the Gophers would lose at least a few players to early departures.

"I didn't expect everyone to come back, but obviously it's very good that everyone did," Fasching said. "I think everybody knows how good we can be this year."

Another run

A little bit of humor has helped Wilcox process the return of all his teammates. He learned of Rau's recommitment from a friend's Twitter feed while on the golf course. "My swing got a little better," he joked.

Wilcox also admits to teasing Rau and Skjei around the arena, with jabs such as "Oh, happy to see you here."

"We're all really excited about it," Wilcox said. "And there's nothing better than having Rau back for his senior year."

Lucia is not publicly getting overly excited about his returning bunch, but he agrees with his goalie.

"Kyle is our leader," Lucia said. "He is kind of the straw that stirs the drink for us. To have his energy and competitiveness in all of [the players], we're obviously a much better team with them this year."

Rau has been at the center of many of the program's biggest moments over the past three seasons. The early results this season are strong as well: Rau scored two goals, both in the second period, in Saturday's 5-0 exhibition victory.

Last April, these players led the Gophers on an NCAA tournament run that came to a crashing end when underdog Union beat them 7-4 in the national title game. Assistant captain Ben Marshall said the goal is to get back to that game, and strive for a different outcome.

"These guys all wanted to come back and wanted to make it to the last game of the year," Marshall said. "We have a close group of guys, and I think the reason guys want to come back every year is because we are such a close group. That's why we do so well."

Jason Gonzalez • 612-673-4494