Minnesota returns to action for the first time in two weeks Friday when the Gophers play Bemidji State in a two-game series at Mariucci Arena (Friday at 8:00 p.m. on BTN/Saturday at 7:00 p.m. on FSN+). It's a building where the home team is coming off a year with a 15-1-3 record. Having time off so early has benefits for a sport where the first exhibition game sometimes comes the evening of the first official practice. Extra practice can help a team gel together.
That's not the way Justin Kloos prefers.
"I'd maybe prefer not to have it because you want to jump into things," Kloos said. "We've had 100 practices since we ended our season last year so we're ready to go, ready to get some games under our belt and see what kind of team we have this year."
Competitive practices aside, the top-ranked Gophers (2-0-0, 0-0-0-0 Big Ten) will get into game mode over the next four weeks with series against the Beavers, St. Cloud State, Notre Dame and Minnesota-Duluth. This first one matches Minnesota with a team which is also coming off of a bye week after splitting a home-and-home series against North Dakota.
While the Gophers swept Bemidji State (1-1-0, 0-0-0 WCHA) on the road last season in a breakout performance for Kloos (the now- sophomore forward had a goal and four assists in two games), there are differences between last year's version and the one coming into Mariucci Arena.
"(Bemidji is) a much better team. They have six defensemen who are mobile, two very good goaltenders," said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia. "They're deeper and quicker up front than a year ago. They went into Grand Forks and won 5-1 and it was 2-1 the next night. They're a good team and as good a team as we'll have seen this year."
The Beavers feature junior forward Cory Ward, who has had success against Minnesota in the past, scoring 4 goals in 6 games against the Gophers. New to BSU this year are the Fitzgerald triplets - Myles, Leo and Gerry. It's not often that Minnesota, with its three Reillys, is matched in the family quantity department.
The 2 trios, however, have actually played against one another before in the BCHL. The three Reillys (twins Ryan and Connor and younger brother Mike) were members of the Penticton Vees in 2011-12 facing the three Fitzgeralds' Victoria Grizzlies.
According to Mike Reilly, that was the only time he's ever played against that many siblings.
"Never before that. I think they're all the same size too, triplets," he said. "I think they're in the movie ‘Baby Genius' too. They actually told us that." (Ed. note - that's true. The Fitzgeralds were also in Baby Genuises 2 aka one of the worst movies ever made.)
As far as personnel goes, this weekend marks the collegiate debut of Swedish freshman Leon Bristedt. Lucia isn't sure where he will play other than the fact that he will get time. Everyone is healthy, but the Gopher head coach is trying to find a balance among his forward corps. Lines have been moved around frequently in practice and won't be settled until Thursday.
The top three lines are somewhat set with two players apiece and figuring out who the third player to join them will be is something the coaching staff "don't know yet." It's only something that will be discovered through repetition in games.
Just another reason for getting back into games.
"It's great to practice, but you have to play games in order for guys to get an idea of what they are capable of doing," Lucia said.
There's also a good chance all eight defensemen play again this weekend.
"It's as much (associate head coach Mike Guentzel's) decision as anything else, what he wants to do back there," added Lucia. "We can get to a point where we go 11 (forwards) and 7 (defensemen) some nights 12 (forwards) and 6 (defensemen). We have a lot of flexibility back there.
"We're trying to win some games, but at the same time bring the young guys along."
- Both weekend games have special ceremonies. Friday's will honor the 2013-14 Big Ten regular season championship - Minnesota's third straight time doing that - and national runner-up team. Saturday's game will honor Mike Reilly after the junior defenseman was named a first team All-American last year. The Columbus Blue Jackets draft pick is the first Gopher to earn that honor since Ryan Stoa in 2009 and will have his grandparents in attendance.
"It's going to great for them to come and see that and a lot of other relatives and cousins so I'm sure there will be a lot of people watching," he said. "It just reflects the guys on the team. It's about the guys so we just have to get the win. It's more important."
-Minnesota players received Big Ten championship rings last week. For Reilly they were bigger than expected.
-Lucia on what he learned about the Gophers from the opening Ice Breaker series:
"I think we learned that there's a certain way we have to play. The more we move the puck and share the puck and get the puck down to the offensive goal line we're a better team. I thought at times in Friday's game we held onto it too much and tried to do a little too much one on one. That's not going to fly."
-Kloos on growing from freshman to sophomore season:
"I'm not too comfortable, which I don't think anyone is just because there are so many good players on our roster. I think I feel more comfortable in the games - maybe a little more confident to start the year than last year - so hopefully we'll put together a good year.
-The Beavers spent part of the week practicing in Grand Rapids to prepare for the Olympic-sized ice sheet.
-According to Jack Hittinger of the Bemidji Pioneer, BSU is planning to once again split the goalie workload. Freshman Michael Bitzer will start Friday's game. Senior Andrew Walsh will be in net Saturday.
Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate