Exhibition games are tricky to digest.
They look like real hockey. They give that positive feeling that comes with watching hockey. Yet somewhere deep down it's not quite an actual hockey game that counts. While exhibition games are as close as it gets to the real deal (and satisfying), there's something about them that makes it hard to get a clear look and make definitive statements.
(If that was the case, Christian Isackson's hat trick against the Pronghorns last year would have counted for more.)
Coaches are going to experiment. Players who may not get a chance to play regularly or are on the cusp can more ice time. Some new things that may not find their way to regular season games happen.
Sure, we did learn in Minnesota's 5-1 win Saturday over Lethbridge that the Gophers respond positively to physical play. Or at least against a team made up almost exclusively of older Canadians. We saw a Pronghorns bench that had less Canadians in than Arcade Fire at one point. We also were reminded that facemasking is not just a penalty exclusive to football. Helmets were ripped off more than a few times. Punches were thrown to the point where a few went uncalled and it wasn't surprising.
There were plenty of first looks Saturday, but mostly it's the first game. No one wants to be judged solely on one performance in an exhibition game. Not the players on the ice. Not even the guy writing this article.
It's going to happen, though.
Several people asked during the Lethbridge game and throughout the weekend about what Minnesota's lines were. A lot more asked about the overall play of the incoming freshmen. I'm glad that people are curious because how the freshmen adjust is going to be a big storyline for the Gophers this season. These are my thoughts on how each of them did Saturday and the roles each were slated in to start the season.
Hopefully these give an idea of expectations with Minnesota starting the season Friday and Saturday hosting Mercyhurst, Clarkson and New Hampshire in the Ice Breaker.
At the same time, take everything with a grain of salt. It was an exhibition game, after all.
University of Minnesota's lines against Lethbridge
Hudson Fasching - Kyle Rau - Vinni Lettieri
Nate Condon - Justin Kloos - Taylor Cammarata
Connor Reilly - Travis Boyd - Christian Isackson
Tom Serratore - A.J. Michaelson - Seth Ambroz
Ryan Reilly - Empty - Christian Horn
Jake Parenteau - Ben Marshall
These weren't the only lines Minnesota used against Lethbridge. Several players filled in when needed - having 14 forwards will do that - even before Ben Marshall and Connor Reilly were given game misconducts. It makes sense early on given that the team has only had a week or two to practice. As Travis Boyd put it, "things are being switched around daily."
There's also the fact that top-six regular Sam Warning was out. While he'll play next weekend, Saturday's game was a practice in line juggling.
All 3 goalies played. Wilcox was in for the first, Shibrowski played the second and most of the third and Coyne played the final five minutes. Coyne got a nice ovation when he entered.
There were also several different power play combinations, which will look different given Kyle Rau is the only returning player from Minnesota's first PP unit last season. Despite going 3-6 with the man advantage, it is still a work in progress with only limited time spent on it in practice. I don't think Lucia was happy with how they played against Lethbridge (very passive, especially with some of the younger guys), but here are a couple that played when everyone was available.
-Isackson-Rau-Fasching Marshall-Connor Reilly
-Kloos-Ambroz-Condon Mike Reilly-Cammarata
Again it wasn't set. Players like Boyd (who scored a power play goal at the end of a 5x3), Brodzinski and Brady Skjei, who didn't play on it last year, also found some PP time. What stood out was both units having four forwards. The Gophers have used that at times yet not to that extreme.
Minnesota also used several different penalty kill combinations. Several old PK staples like Tom Serratore, Travis Boyd, Nate Condon and Brady Skjei return, however, there were some new guys too. Ryan Reilly and A.J. Michaelson had a couple shifts together while Mike Reilly, who didn't play there last year, also saw some PK time. Skjei, meawhile, was paired with returning defenseman Justin Holl.
It'll be interesting to see how each of these evolve throughout the year.
There were several opportunities for the 7 freshmen (8 if you include Coyne as a redshirt) who made their Minnesota debut on Saturday and they made the most of them. Three - Fasching, Brodzinski and Cammarata - scored goals while four of the top-six forwards were making their debuts wearing the Maroon and Gold.
Hudson Fasching, Forward (#24) - No one stood out more Saturday among the freshmen than Fasching, who scored a goal and nearly tipped in a second. The Apple Valley, MN native led the Gophers with six shots. The 6'2", 207 lbs forward is unique in this class given his size and against Lethbridge he used it more than a few times. At one point, Fasching was able to skate his way through and around two Lethbridge players to reach the puck. He had little trouble powering his way into the slot.
"He's been that way since I saw him at the World Junior camp this summer," Lucia said after the game. "I was impressed with him there. He's playing with pace. He's playing hard. You get rewarded when you play that way."
Either way it's a much better performance than his last game at Mariucci Arena. That game, against the Gophers last year, saw Fasching, then playing for the USNTDP, leave the game and miss time after a Tom Serratore hit.
Vinni Lettieri, Forward (#19) - Lettieri, playing on the top line with Fashcing and Kyle Rau, also was in the USNTDP-Gophers exhibition last October. He was the more impressive of the two then given his skating and scoring.
This time around, the 5'10", 182 lbs Lettieri took a back seat to Fasching. He set up behind the net a few times and looked to set up his linemates - something Lethbridge picked up as the game went on - but was the third player on the line. He looked more like a freshman playing his first game.
I'm interested to see if Lettieri (and Fasching for that matter) is in the same slot for the Ice Breaker. Sam Warning is returning and has to play somewhere. He's been a left winger so it might not be in Lettieri's spot, but having him up on the top line would make sense.
Justin Kloos, Forward (#25) - The 2012 Minnesota Mr. Hockey winner was scheduled to play last season before Nick Bjugstad decided to return and was ready then. Still, he made the most of another year in the USHL and looked more than ready on Saturday. Kloos finished second in the league with 87 points for the Waterloo Black Hawks. The only player who scored more was his linemate then and now (aka the player directly below).
You can tell the 5'9", 178 lbs Kloos has built-in chemistry with Cammarata that no other incoming players has yet to build. The two know where each other are on the ice, look to set up the other to the point where left wing and linemate Nate Condon was left out. That may have been a precursor to Kloos' special teams play, which didn't have the same effect.
"Taylor and Justin made plays like we thought they were going to do," Lucia said about the linemates after the game. "If they're going to be on the power play, they're going to have to score."
Kloos' speed is noticeable. He makes Speedy Gonzalez look like regular Gonzalez. At one point in the game he used his speed to loop around a Lethbridge D and receive the puck on the back door for a Grade A opportunity. He didn't face much physical play compared to others, so that'll be something to follow throughout the season.
Additionally, Kloos stepped up at the face-off dot by winning 7 of 10 face-offs. Minnesota has to replace two centers in Bjugstad and Erik Haula who were above-average in face-offs.
Taylor Cammarata, Forward (#13) - Despite being listed at 5'7", 154 lbs, no one has come in with a bigger hype than Cammarata. The Plymouth, MN native led the USHL in goals (38) and points (93). He was rewarded by being selected in the 3rd round of this year's NHL Draft by the New York Islanders and mentioned in the same category as North Dakota's Rocco Grimaldi and Boston College's John Gaudreau. Guys who have scored at the NCAA level - quite well - in spite of their size.
Cammarata did score Saturday after being set up by Kloos and had a few other chances saved by Pronghorns goalie Dylan Tait.
While Cammarata is fast, there were times where it felt as if he was too stationary and out of place. It was almost as if he was just looking for the next offensive play. In a way it reminded me a little of Jordan Schroeder and Cammarata can lull defenders into a false sense with his speed. (the same can be said with his shot). At the same time, it's the type of style that may take a few times to get the full picture.
Connor Reilly, Forward (#21) - I almost don't want to put Reilly in this group because the 22 year-old redshirt is not the typical freshman. Not even close. (To put his age in perspective, his linemates were juniors Travis Boyd and Christian Isackson. Boyd is 23 1/2 months younger than Reilly. Isackson is younger by 15 months.) He will be included since Saturday was his first game after missing last season.
If Minnesota was missing anything from the third Reilly brother, it was his shot. Connor, like his two brothers, is speedy on the ice. However, he also isn't afraid to use his slap shot, which is a bomb when the 6'0", 180 lbs forward gets all of it. Reilly hit the post on one slap shot and then followed it up by hitting the net. He was in "shoot first, ask questions later" mode before receiving a game misconduct late in the second period for facemasking.
Getting caught up in after whistle activities (something a few freshmen..and others who weren't freshmen were guilty of being) is something to learn as well.
Gabe Guertler, Forward (#27) - The Plantation, FL native did not play because he is indefinitely suspended. Not related, but freshman defenseman Tommy Vannelli also didn't play since he left Minnesota for Medicine Hat (WHL)last month.
Michael Brodzinski, Defense (#20) - If judging players by an exhibition game is tough it goes double for defensemen. Minnesota had its way offensively. The team faced only 12 shots on goal and some Gopher blue liners had more shots in a period than Lethbridge had scoring chances.
"We'll find out more about (the defense) next weekend," Lucia said.
The good news for Brodzinski is that he did score a goal in Minnesota's win and showed off his wrist shot. The bad news is that doesn't help much defensively. He made a couple turnovers, but at the same time the San Jose Sharks draft pick made up for them. On one shift Brodzinski made up for a turnover by getting stick on puck on a 1x1 in the defensive zone and then skated down the ice for an open shot on the ensuing offensive opportunity.
Jake Bischoff, Defense (#28) - The same thing about Brodzinski goes for Bischoff when it comes to defense. Although there were a couple moments where it looked like the speed of college hockey would take an adjustment (the New York Islanders draft pick went up for a puck along the boards to keep it in the offensive zone and paid the price), Minnesota and Bischoff weren't tested enough defensively.
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Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation and College Hockey News. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate