Gopher hockey: Exodus of talent begins, but future still bright

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The 2012-13 hockey season for the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers started with high expectations and plenty of talent to accomplish those goals. The end of the season left players, coaches, and fans in bewilderment as to why it ended so abruptly.

The loss in the NCAA Quarterfinals to Yale University was an unexpected early exit for the Gophers. On back-to-back weekends the schedule was set for Minnesota to play the University of North Dakota if things fell their way. They did not.

Minnesota was bounced in both the WCHA Final Five and the NCAA tournament to under-seeded teams. The losses leave all parties scratching their heads to how one of the top teams in the nation all year can lay a couple rotten eggs at the end like they did.

The Maroon and Gold finish their season at 26-9-5 overall on the year. Head coach Don Lucia and his squad improved on their overall winning percentage from a season ago, but they did not match the trip to the NCAA Frozen Four like last year.

What will surely be chalked up as a failure of a season in Minnesota hockey standards, the team has a lot of questions moving forward to next season as well as what went wrong this year.

The Gophers came in to the tournament as the No. 1 offensive team in the country. They also had a top three defense, the No. 1 power play unit and a top ten penalty kill in the nation. All those numbers add up to a team that should have been primed to claim the sixth NCAA Championship in school history.

Minnesota got this far in the season on the coattails of a freshmen goaltender in Adam Wilcox who carried the team many times through some tough stretches. The rookie keeper for the Gophers posted team record numbers in his first year between the pipes and took home All-WCHA Third Team honors as a goalie. The South St. Paul native stands as one of the biggest bright spots for the team heading in to his sophomore campaign next season.

Leading they way in scoring for Minnesota on the season was junior forward and Hobey Baker Award semifinalist Erik Haula. The Finnish standout will be one of the major flight risks for Minnesota heading into the off-season. Haula is a draft pick of the Minnesota Wild and with the local NHL club making a push for the postseason, we may see Haula leave early and take his talents permanently to Xcel Energy Center.

Arguably the most talented player on paper for the Gophers is junior forward Nick Bjugstad. The big power forward was believed to be gone from the program after his sophomore season, but the recent NHL lockout kept Bjugstad in college and it really helped to round out his overall game. A draftee of the Florida Panthers, he is almost a lock to be making his way to the NHL as early as the beginning of this week.

Fans should be happy that they got the chance to cheer for the towering Blaine, Minn. native for a bonus year this season and wish him luck in his professional career.

There are many other players that are thought to be rodents ready to jump ship as well. The only other lock to dip from the team is senior defensemen Seth Helgeson. The big defender will leave a big hole on the blue line after graduation and it will be tough for Lucia to fill his role as a physical presence with a big shot on the back end.

Others that are rumored as possible candidates to leave early for the pros are defenders Nate Schmidt and Mark Alt as well as forwards Kyle Rau, Zach Budish, and Nate Condon. The whole lot of them make up the majority of the scoring for the Gophers on the season.

It will be a tough sell for the coaches to keep as many of the players with eligibility remaining on the team. With signing bonuses and no homework in-front of these player’s noses it could get ugly for Minnesota quickly.

The good news is that the cupboards are full of talent as per usual for Minnesota. The problem continues to be that the senior classes for Minnesota are small, because the high-end talent players defect for the pro ranks. Experience counts and often the wisdom that comes with time on the ice at the collegiate level can take down pure talent in many games.

Whatever happens in the coming weeks for Minnesota will just dictate the overall hype that the team will carry with them into next season. Just know that not all the names above will be gone and one or two that aren’t listed off the roster will be absent next season. College hockey is not for every athlete and different situations arise for even the best team player or local hero.

So what went wrong this weekend? Why aren’t the Gophers playing for a title? The truth is that single-elimination hockey is a fickle beast. The mode is that teams tend to be conservative early in contests and play tight from the get-go  The Gophers had a solid first period, but without getting ahead on the scoreboard early against the Yale Bulldogs, they would have to pay a higher price for mistakes later in the game.

In the prime of the Gophers run just after the holiday break, the teams would come flying out of the gates against opponents and were tenacious on both the offensive and defensive ends of the ice. It was a great recipe to win big games against the toughest teams in the WCHA and in the country.

Going down 2-0 by the end of the second period to the Ivy League Bulldogs is a pretty deep hole to climb out of, even for a high scoring team like the Maroon and Gold. Minnesota showed that they had the gusto to climb back in to the game and send it to overtime tied, 2-2. As with the sport of ice hockey, a bad bounce and just one lapse of concentration can cost a team their whole year. Credit Yale for coming out of the gates in overtime with their heads up and capitalizing on a golden chance.

It was an obvious big win for Yale and with a battle with UND in the West Regional finals for the Bulldogs, they will need to batten down the hatches and be ready for a dirtier match up versus of what they faced in Minnesota the game before.

Besides players and coaches, the future of Golden Gopher hockey will be different with the transition to Big Ten Hockey. Minnesota did claim a share of the McNaughton Cup in their last year in the WCHA, but that is a tough sell to ticket buyers next year when the schedule includes the likes of Ohio State and Penn State and not North Dakota or Colorado College.

It will be a long off-season for the Gophers. It would have been a lot easier to swallow with a NCAA banner hanging from the rafters with the words “National Champion” on it. Without it, the naysayers and second guessers will have their time to pine on a hockey season that ended with thousands of blank faces just 9 seconds into an overtime in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Wherever you stand in the spectrum of Gopher hockey fan, analyst or just casual observer, know that this season’s team did not just give up or quit at the end of the year. They lost and they likely feel just as let down as you do. Hockey players do not like to lose and these amateur skaters will just have to give it that college try all over again next fall.

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