Don Lucia knew his young team would experience growing pains. He might not have expected them so soon, though. The aching started minutes into the Gophers’ 2015-16 campaign and continued throughout Saturday night’s season-opening, 3-0 loss to unranked Vermont at Mariucci Arena.
The No. 9 Gophers struggled to break Vermont’s trap defense and were unable to score on four power plays, and a rookie goalie gave up a pair of goals he might save with a couple more games under his belt.
Vermont junior forward Mario Puskarich scored two goals that will haunt Eric Schierhorn’s memory of his college debut. The first hit Schierhorn high and deflected over his shoulder into the net with 9.3 seconds left in the first period. Puskarich scored his second goal early in the third period off the rebound of his own shot by deflecting it off the back of Schierhorn’s skate.
Jon Turk added an insurance goal on an open net late in the third period, and goaltender Mike Santaguida picked up the shutout with 24 saves for Vermont (1-0).
Schierhorn also recorded 24 saves.
“We were hoping the growing pains maybe would have ended up a different way,” Gophers junior captain Justin Kloos said. “But we’ve got to learn from it, and it’s a long season. We’ve just got to get back to work and give ourselves a chance to win next weekend.”
The Gophers featured a whole new look for the season opener. Each line of forwards and the defensive pairings were new combinations after the loss of nine prominent figures from last year’s squad. Even the goaltender was new. Six players in the lineup were freshmen. Four were sophomores.
The second, third and fourth lines of forwards all started with a rookie at center.
All the change and unfamiliarity was obvious just minutes into the game. The team’s traded penalties in the first period, and the Gophers struggled to create scoring chances on a pair of back-to-back power-play opportunities with new power-play units.
“Guys have to adjust to new roles,” Lucia said. “We didn’t have great rhythm coming out of our zone or coming through the neutral zone, and I didn’t think we did a great job with our puck support.
“We had our chances. We blew some of them over the net. We missed some wide. So we didn’t help ourselves with our shots.”
The odd-man rushes and open looks the Gophers created weren’t enough to break through. Kloos was stuffed by Santaguida from close range, undefended, with five minutes left in the game, and the Gophers never threatened again.
Kloos wouldn’t pin the bad opening night on the Gophers’ young talent.
“I wouldn’t say it was the freshmen at all,” he said. “The captains need to be better. … We all need to be better if we’re going to have a good year. It started with us. The freshmen got their feet wet, but they did fine. We’re the reason we lost, the older guys.”
Junior defenseman Jake Bischoff was pleased with the Gophers defense and his young goalie. Their game plan each night is to give up no more than two goals and hope the offense takes care of the rest.
Schierhorn and the defensive corps did their part, but they got no support up front.
“It’s not exactly what we were looking for,” Bischoff said. “But I think we got a lot of stuff we can take away from it. Stuff to learn. They played a really tough system. We don’t see it too much, and they sort of just trapped us.
“Overall, Schierhorn had an unbelievable game. First college game and he went out there and did all we asked him to. … That’s all we can ask for.”
The Gophers were shut out only once last season but had scored 31 goals before it happened, a month into the season. The last time they lost a season opener was in 2009 against North Dakota.