The players paraded around TCF Bank Stadium for Champions Day two weeks ago, showing off another Big Ten trophy. The honor was appreciated, but the veteran leadership on the Gophers men's hockey team still can't forget last season's sour finish.
The Gophers lost in the conference tournament title game and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years. They expect more, and so do the fans.
Thirteen seasons have passed since the program's last national championship, yet the administration had enough confidence in veteran coach Don Lucia to extended his contract Thursday, the day before the season opener. This addressed one of several questions the program faces entering a season in which the Gophers will attempt to prove they are still the best team in the state and remain among college hockey's elite.
Can Lucia win another title?
Lucia spent the past week fielding questions about his future, and the administration answered for him Thursday by announcing a two-year contract extension.
He is entering his 18th season leading one of the nation's premier programs and looking to win a third national championship with the Gophers. The 58-year-old won back-to-back titles in 2002 and 2003. The long drought has led some fans to grow weary of Lucia, but he continues to win conference championships — five in a row, dating to the WCHA days — and produce NCAA tournament-caliber teams.
The team has missed the NCAAs five times during Lucia's 17 seasons, and three were during a stretch in which he battled health issues.
The Gophers were picked to win the Big Ten for the fourth year in a row and are No. 13 in the United States College Hockey Online poll.
"I love our speed. I love, so far, how our chemistry off the ice right now is awesome," senior captain and forward Justin Kloos said. "Everyone is really getting along, and I think it's going to be a team that plays for one goal. There is not going to be a lot of outside influence.
"This will be a really focused group because, obviously, last year was really unacceptable. I'm really pumped for the whole thing."
Captains ready to lead?
The Gophers had three seniors on last year's squad, and none played a significant role on the ice. The four captains, then all juniors, admittedly struggled to lead at times. Kloos said he is more comfortable in his captain role after a year of experience, and alternate captain Connor Reilly, also a senior forward, said the group intends to be more vocal.
Alternate captain and senior defenseman Jake Bischoff added: "This is my fourth year now. I sort of know the ropes a little bit. … So just being around for a while, I'm really able to answer some of the questions [the younger players] have and just try to be there to help them in whatever way I can."
Will a new locker room help?
The Gophers moved into their renovated locker room two weeks ago and have spent as much time as possible in the new space.
"I didn't take a peek all summer just because I wanted to have one big surprise," Reilly said, "and it blew away my expectations. The first day I walked in there, it wasn't real life. We literally went from the outhouse to the penthouse. … I can't see there being a nicer locker room in the nation."
The renovation is the first phase of a $5 million upgrade to Mariucci Arena.
Bischoff said the team lounge has become a place where the players can bond while not on the ice, even during off days. Sophomore goaltender Eric Schierhorn said players have spent Sundays in the lounge watching Vikings games.
Is Schierhorn the real deal?
Schierhorn had big skates to fill last season as a freshman, following All-America goalie Adam Wilcox. Schierhorn was named Big Ten Goaltender of the Year after proving to be the Gophers' most consistent player. He and Kloos were unanimous selections to this season's Big Ten watch list.
"I know there is room for me to grow, even though I did have that accolade last year," Schierhorn said. "There are parts of my game, whether it's goals-against or save percentage, where I can improve and where I need to improve for our team to take the next step."
The 20-year-old sophomore from Anchorage, Alaska, finished last season with a .906 save percentage, 2.69 goals-against average and three shutouts.