Familiar faces returning give hope to Gophers hockey team
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Zach Budish kicked off his portion of Gopher hockey media day by making it clear that there's at least one notable change in Dinkytown since the team's 2010-11 campaign came to a premature conclusion.
When the Edina native needs to get to class or elsewhere around the Minneapolis campus, he walks or drives a car. The scooter which he was riding when the accident that caused his season-ending knee injury happened, after he'd played in just seven games last year, is long gone.
The next thing that needs to go, in the eyes of just about everyone who follows the program, is the current NCAA tournament drought.
Not since the end of the 2007-08 season, when the Gophers fell to eventual national champion Boston College in the Northeast Regional, has Minnesota even qualified for the field of 16. At many of the region's other Division I hockey schools, a trip to the NCAAs every three or four years is an acceptable success rate. At Minnesota, it's considered a disaster by many of those speculating that coach Don Lucia's job is on the line.
For his part, Lucia brushes off the rumors, insisting that he's not one for reading blogs or following Twitter. He was all smiles when meeting the media on Thursday inside a chilly Mariucci Arena, and noted that with the leaves turning and a cold wind blowing from the north, it was hockey weather.
As is always the case before the first puck has been dropped, there's optimsm to be had, as the coach notes that team team's top two centers from a year ago - Nick Bjugstad and Erik Haula - are back, and they'll get a boost from Budish's return.
"Zach Budish is a guy we missed last year," Lucia said. "He was injured early in the season after he'd gotten off to a good start. He's transitioned well from his injury and has looked very good in what he's done."
Budish also missed his final year of high school due to a knee injury, and noted that he's essentially played one season of hockey in the last three years. The good news is that the NCAA granted him a medical redshirt, which will mean three more seasons at the U if he chooses to stay that long.
The injury bug also touched the goaltending corps last season, as mainstay Alex Kangas had his collegiate career come to a close a few months early due to a hip injury that required surgery. Like last year, that leaves the bulk of the work between the pipes to senior Kent Patterson who was 14-9-6 with decent numbers. He was part of a late-season surge that had Minnesota enter the WCHA playoffs on a 5-0-2 run. With a playoff series versus Alaska Anchorage at home - where they'd previously lost just one league playoff game ever. That made the two quick losses, and the abrupt end to the season, even more of a shock.
Unlike their football-playing counterparts, the hockey Gophers have a pair of winnable home series on the October schedule, as Sacred Heart and Vermont come to visit the big city. In between those, they go on the road twice and have a chance to exorcise demons both times, first traveling to face the defending national champs at Minnesota Duluth, then closing out the month with a long trip to Alaska Anchorage.
Lucia talks about the contributions he'll need from the likes of Bjugstad, the Blaine native who stands 6-5 without skates on and looks a little like a Scandinavian version of Zdeno Chara. And as always, there's a hot freshman class expected to chip in, with Eden Prairie's state tournament hero Kyle Rau leading the charge.
Talk to many players, especially on defense, and they say the most important new face is a familiar one, as assistant coach Mike Guentzel has returned after being dismissed by Lucia in 2008, then re-hired three years later. Guentzel will run the defense and the power play, and provides a rare example of a new coach not needing to learn, or teach, a new system.
Those things are all building blocks, just like early season wins would be, as the Gophers seek a steady climb in the WCHA and NCAA rankings, and at minimum a finish among the elite 16 when the field is announced in March. The WCHA coaches and media both picked the Gophers for sixth in the 12-team league, which would at least mean home ice for the playoffs again. Nobody who spoke on behalf of the team Thursday said that would be considered anywhere close to good enough, but Lucia acknowledged that pressure to win is a part of the job when you stand behind the home bench at Mariucci.
"When the year begins, the expectations are always the same. We want to be a team that's fighting nationally at the end of the year," Lucia said. "Is there any more pressure this year than any other year? I don't think so. I think you always feel pressure when it begins to have the best year we can have. But I do take it personally as the leader of this program that we haven't achieved the level of success we expect and want."
Success has always been an expectation at Minnesota, where Lucia has guided the program to two of its five NCAA titles. And for the Gophers and their restless fans this season, on-ice success well into March and even April may be a vital need as well.