"Badger'' Bob Johnson, the Minneapolis native and former Gophers player who became a championship-winning coach at Wisconsin and with the Pittsburgh Penguins, was known for the saying, "It's a great day for hockey.''
Of course, to the always upbeat Johnson, that saying applied to any day that ends in the letter 'y.'
Such is the case this week, when the NHL returns with five season openers on Wednesday and 10, including the Wild at Los Angeles, on Thursday. Indeed, it's a great week for hockey.
The NHL sailed through its bubbled playoffs in Edmonton and Toronto last fall with no COVID-19 issues, but the 2021 season will be more of a challenge because teams will be playing in their home arenas rather than a hermetically sealed atmosphere. Already, four teams have had coronavirus issues, and the Dallas Stars won't start until at least Jan. 19.
For the Wild, it's been so far, so good when it comes to COVID-19. Coach Dean Evason is pleased with how his players have handled the situation.
"Our guys have done a tremendous job leading up to the bubble and then in the bubble and obviously leading up to camp here and then through camp,'' Evason said. "We haven't been complaining, just going about our business. We want to be as free as we possibly can when that puck is dropped.''
When the puck drops, seemingly all eyes among those who follow the Wild will be on rookie Kirill Kaprizov, the Russian phenom who carries the dynamic scoring skills the team has sought since its inception. Kaprizov provided plenty of jaw-dropping moments during training camp, and come Thursday, people will see how well those translate to NHL play.
It's not just Kaprizov that's new to the Wild. Cam Talbot takes over in goal, and new additions Marcus Johansson and Nick Bonino will hold key roles, too. Also, Nick Bjugstad will try to tap into his enormous potential while centering a line with Kaprizov and veteran Zach Parise.
General Manager Bill Guerin's reconstruction of the Wild roster continues, and this version is one step toward his plan to build a Stanley Cup contender. How well that plan will bear results remains to be seen, starting this week with the welcome sight of hockey returning to play.
No. 1 vs. No. 2 coming up
The Gophers women's hockey team, which moved up to No. 1 in the U.S. College Hockey Online poll on Monday, will put that lofty ranking on the line on Friday and Saturday with a visit to No. 2 Wisconsin. This is the first meeting this season between the rivals. A December series at Ridder Arena had to be postponed because of COVID-19 issues within the Badgers program.
The series marks start of a challenging stretch for coach Brad Frost's team, which faces travels to No. 3 Ohio State on Jan. 29-30 before playing host to Wisconsin on Feb. 5-6 and the Buckeyes on Feb. 12-13.
Huskies, Fighting Hawks rolling
It's too early to call the NCHC a two-horse race between St. Cloud State and North Dakota, but the Huskies (27 points, 13 games played) and Fighting Hawks (26 points, 12 games played) have built a cushion over third-place Minnesota Duluth (21 points, 13 games played).
St. Cloud State swept the Bulldogs 4-3 and 1-0 in Duluth over the weekend, and that followed the previous week's series split in St. Cloud. Freshman forward Veeti Miettinen (seven goals, seven assists) and junior defenseman Nick Perbix (5-8-13) pace a balanced Huskies attack that has seven players with eight or more points.
North Dakota finished a sweep at Colorado College on Monday night that ran the Fighting Hawks' winning streak to six games. The preseason favorite to win the NCHC remains just that, and a deep lineup led by Jordan Kawaguchi (3-11-14) and Shane Pinto (5-10-15) is built for tournament play. Goalie Adam Scheel (1.82 goals-against average, .927 save percentage) has started every game in the win streak and stopped 50 of 51 shots against Colorado College.
Reedy should be ready
Scott Reedy, whose six goals and 11 points rank second among Gophers, missed Sunday's series finale at Wisconsin because of an unspecified injury but should be available to play in the Friday-Saturday home series against Notre Dame, coach Bob Motzko said Monday on his KFAN-Plus radio show.