A talented Mariucci Classic field and an undermanned lineup won't allow the Gophers much room for error as they return to action as hosts of the annual holiday tournament on Friday night.
The Gophers are without junior defenseman Brady Skjei, who remains out with an upper-body injury, and sophomore forward Hudson Fasching, freshman defenseman Ryan Collins and freshman forward Leon Bristedt each are competing at the World Junior Championships for their respective countries.
While the Gophers will be missing several key figures, No. 9 Massachusetts-Lowell is coming off a holiday tournament sweep last weekend and No. 18 Merrimack features one of the nation's top scoring forwards.
"We've got a real good field," Gophers coach Don Lucia said. "Like anything, especially when you come back after the break, we're just trying to concentrate on getting our game back and getting our guys back in the rhythm of the structure of the game.
"You can't sit there and complain about the guys you don’t have. It’s something you deal with every year at this time. We have guys playing at the World Juniors. It’s great that three of them are participating at such a great event and Brady won't be available this weekend. We've got six healthy defenseman, that's one more than I think we had last year at this time and some other guys get an opportunity to play. It's an important evaluation for them because we're going to get four guys back in our lineup that probably should be in our lineup, so it's an opportunity for some guys to earn more ice time and earn more trust from the coaches.”
Fasching and Collins could return to the Gophers' lineup as early as Saturday night. The U.S. National Junior Team lost in the World Junior Championship quarterfinals on Friday afternoon and were eliminated from the tournament.
A pair of wins against ranked non-conference opponents would help boost the Gophers' Pairwise ranking. They'll play only two more non-conference games after this weekend.
My feature this week takes a look at Adam Wilcox's record-breaking first half of the season and how the goaltender plans to handle the pressure of carrying the team during the second half. Check out video of Don Lucia and Seth Ambroz previewing the tournament.
• MARIUCCI CLASSIC PREVIEW
No. 9 Massachusetts-Lowell vs. RIT, 4 p.m. — Live stream: GopherSports.com
No. 8 Gophers vs. No. 18 Merrimack, 7:05 p.m. — TV: FSN Plus. Live stream: BTN2Go. Radio: 1500-AM.
Gophers at a glance: The Gophers (9-4-1) are hoping the new year and second half of the season offer a fresh start. They are 2-3-1 in their past six games and the schedule won’t get any easier this weekend with a Mariucci Classic that features two other nationally ranked teams. The Gophers are also without four regulars. Brady Skjei is out with an upper-body injury and Hudson Fasching, Ryan Collins and Leon Bristedt are competing in the World Junior Championship in Canada for their respective countries.
Merrimack at a glance: The Warriors (10-5-2) have one of the top defenses and penalty-killing units in the country. Merrimack is giving up only 1.88 goals per game, which ranks as the ninth-lowest nationally, and Rasmus Tirronen is rated among the top five goaltenders. The Warriors’ penalty kill is third with 90.5 percent success. In their only previous meeting with the Gophers, the Warriors lost 6-2 in the 2004 Mariucci Classic.
For more on the Mariucci Classic tournament field, read full series preview.
• Gophers Friday lines
Forwards (left wing, center, right wing)
Sam Warning, Kyle Rau, Connor Reilly
Taylor Cammarata, Justin Kloos, Vinni Lettieri
A.J. Michaelson, Travis Boyd, Seth Ambroz
Robin Hoglund, Christian Isackson, Ryan Reilly
Defensemen (left, right)
Steve Johnson,Michael Brodzinski
Mike Reilly, Jack Glover
Ben Marshall, Jake Bischoff
Adam Wilcox, Nick Lehr, Ryan Coyne
• Minnesotans in the tournament
Massachusetts-Lowell: Chris Forney, Fr., D, Thief River Falls; Lucas Kohls, Fr., D, Forest Lake
Merrimack: Jared Kolquist, Fr. D, Hermantown; Ben Bahe, Jr. F, Stillwater