Expectations are high for Gophers hockey

MINNEAPOLIS — One year removed from a WCHA title and a Frozen Four appearance, the stakes have been raised for the University of Minnesota men’s hockey team.

Many have predicted the Gophers to win the WCHA in the conference’s final year of existence. On top of that, Minnesota is hoping to make another deep run in the postseason after coming so close to an NCAA championship.

Then again, preseason expectations only mean so much. A year ago, nobody pegged the Gophers as a favorite in the WCHA after Minnesota finished the 2010-11 season with a 16-14-6 record. The WCHA preseason media poll had Minnesota finishing sixth out of the conference’s 12 teams.

But coach Don Lucia’s squad went 28-14-1 in 2011-12, beating rival North Dakota to advance to the NCAA Frozen Four before losing to Boston College. Minnesota returns plenty of talent from last year’s team, including six of the Gophers’ top seven scorers, as well as experience after a lengthy playoff run.

Now the question remains: can the Gophers do it again, with all eyes on them this time?

“I think there’s a little pressure this year, obviously, with the rankings and all that,” said junior forward Nick Bjugstad, the WCHA’s Preseason Player of the Year. “We have a good team on paper, but it comes down to if we’re going to put together a good chemistry and all that. I think we have to emphasize being No. 1 right now doesn’t really mean anything and making sure our heads don’t get too big.”

Bjugstad is one of several key returners from last year’s squad. He scored a team-high 25 goals and chipped in 17 assists. Also returning is leading scorer Erik Haula, whose 20 goals and 29 assists paced the Gophers offense. Kyle Rau is back after a breakout freshman season in which he scored 43 points (18-25).

The big question mark is between the pipes, as Minnesota loses goaltender Kent Patterson to graduation. Patterson started all 43 games last year — all but 20 minutes and 44 seconds, to be exact. Junior Michael Shirbrowski is the only goalie on the roster to see ice time a year ago. He played 20 minutes against Wisconsin, stopping all five shots he faced.

Other than the goaltender situation, the rest of Minnesota’s roster has experience. The Gophers are young, to be sure — just one senior on the roster — but they have a deep junior class led by Bjugstad and captain Zach Budish, as well as many sophomores who contributed last year as freshmen.

“I think a lot of guys returning are a lot more confident,” Bjugstad said. “We had a pretty young team. We had some great seniors as well, but having a season like that after some of the seasons we had previously is good for the whole entire program, good for the fans, good for the community. Hopefully we can keep that momentum going.”

At the Gophers’ media day Wednesday, the MacNaughton Cup was on display. Minnesota won the trophy last season after winning the WCHA. That’s obviously a goal again this year, to defend their title. But simply winning the conference won’t be enough to satisfy a Gophers squad that came so close yet so far to a national title last year.

Minnesota’s Frozen Four experience left a sour taste in the Gophers’ mouths, as they lost 6-1 to Boston College in a game that was never close (Minnesota added a third-period goal that cut the Eagles’ lead to 4-1). Boston College later went on to defeat Ferris State in the championship.

The Gophers came within two wins of a national championship, which they haven’t won since winning back-to-back titles in 2002-03. With depth, experience and a hungry team coming back for the 2012-13 season, Minnesota hopes it can take last year’s postseason run one step further.

“We as a team, especially with a core group of guys coming back, we’re looking to do something more special than we had last year,” said junior defenseman Nate Schmidt. “Obviously we got a taste of it. It was a nice little nibble, but obviously the whole piece is still back there waiting for us.”

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