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Gopher Hockey Notebook: Minnesota back for Mariucci Classic

The second half of the season begins with no more off weeks both on the schedule and in the minds of Minnesota.

Happy New Year!

As the final hours tick away from the 2014, Minnesota is ready to begin the second half of the season after three weeks off for finals and Christmas. From here on out there are no off weeks. There is a game every Friday until March or April.

The 9-4-1 Gophers return home Friday to play a regular season game for the first time since November 14th. (In that time frame the team did play an exhibition at Mariucci Arena on November 21st against the US Under-18 team.) Minnesota will host UMass-Lowell, Merrimack and RIT in the 24th annual Marriuci Classic.

"Obviously the break was nice, but it got pretty long there. It's just really nice to get back to playing hockey and being with the guys," senior Seth Ambroz (Columbus Blue Jackets) said Wednesday. "We look forward to this weekend and stepping back on the ice."

Minnesota will play Merrimack (10-5-2, 4-4-1 Hockey East) Friday night at 7:00 p.m. CT and the corresponding winner/loser of UMass-Lowell (12-3-3, 7-0-2 Hockey East) and RIT (5-8-3, 4-5-3 Atlantic Hockey) Saturday. Friday's UMN-Merrimack game is on Fox Sports Plus. Saturday's game will not be televised. It can be picked up online for a price over at BTN2Go.

Both games not featuring Minnesota will be available for free online at gophersports.com.

As is custom to any event or tournament the Gophers host, Minnesota will automatically have the late game.

I'm going to keep this notebook short (by my standards) because it's New Year's Eve and am sure many of you have plans to see the beginning of 2015. If it's New Year's Day and you're reading this from the future - hopefully there are more chunks of content prior to the Mariucci Classic and hoverboards. I was promised hoverboards and a Chicago Cubs-Miami Gators World Series.

Simply, these games are very important to Minnesota's standing in the Pairwise rankings which decide the seedings for the NCAA Tournament. Both Merrimack (#14) and Lowell (#12) are teams which would be in the tournament today along with the Gophers (right now are sitting in 8th although that can fluctuate on a game-to-game basis). The two are also some of the highest remaining teams on the schedule. Other than Minnesota State (#1) and possibly Minnesota-Duluth if the two match-up (again) in the North Star College Cup in a few weeks, the Gophers don't play another tournament team.

Again, hope to get into this more in-depth later - I spoke with head coach Don Lucia about the importance of playing well in non-conference games entering the Big Ten conference slate over the second half - and it's something the team is aware.

Other tidbits:

-Minnesota is healthy other than junior defenseman Brady Skjei (New York Rangers), who remains out with an upper body injury suffered December 6th against Michigan State. Skjei will not be available this weekend and wasn't practicing Wednesday although the 6'3", 206 lbs defenseman has been skating some. He may be back sooner rather than later, according to Lucia.

Right now Skjei is "50/50" to going to Ann Arbor when Minnesota plays Michigan January 9-10 and at worst will be back when Wisconsin comes to town January 16-17.

-Where the team will be shorthanded for the Mariucci Classic, however, is on the blue line. With both Skjei and Ryan Collins (Blue Jackets) - currently playing for Team USA at the 2015 World Junior Championships - the Gophers only have six healthy defensemen led by Mike Reilly at its disposal. As Lucia pointed out, that's still one more than a year ago when the team had Ryan Reilly be a D in name only against Colgate to fill a line sheet. At the same time, it's not the ideal situation.

"Some other guys get an opportunity to play," Lucia said. "It's an important evaluation for them because we're going to get four guys back in our lineup that probably should be in our lineup. So it's an opportunity for some guys to earn more ice time and earn more trust with the coaches."

Hudson Fasching (Buffalo Sabres) and Leon Bristedt will also be missing this weekend's games due to the World Juniors. All 3 international Gophers are expected to be back for the Michigan series.

-Speaking of World Juniors, Minnesota players and coaches have been watching and paying attention to how their teammates are doing. They are all looking forward to today's (December 31st) USA game against Canada. The winner between the two North American rivals will take the top spot in Group A.

-Travis Boyd (Washington Capitals) had interesting insight about his team watching from afar. Here's what he learned from being off for a long stretch with his first-ever major injury (where he missed a month, almost came back for the Boston series before getting hurt the day before and then finally returning for a single weekend before break against the Spartans):

"The big thing for me when I was hurt was trying to get back as fast as I can and doing everything that was absolutely possible in getting me back as soon as I could and trying to stay in shape. It was interesting watching the game from up in the stands or on TV compared to being on the ice.

"The big thing I noticed was that it didn't look like we were all in at times or competing the whole time. I think that Duluth series was pretty evident that they wanted it. (The Bulldogs) wanted to beat us two times. They wanted to sweep us. They wanted it bad. It just seemed like maybe we thought it would be easy or maybe we thought we would roll over them, but they came out with a lot of energy and I don't think we matched their intensity at all."

-It appears that Mariucci Arena will be an Olympic-sized sheet for a while longer. The ice sheet will be one of the final upgrades although the downstairs area of the building is "very close" to having the funding to begin. If that happens, the locker rooms and area around there will have the walls knocked down and rebuilt in time for next fall.

-Former Gopher forward Nick Bjugstad signed a 6 year, $24.6M contract extension Wednesday with Florida. It's well worth it for Bjugstad, who leads the Panthers with 13 goals in his second NHL season, and was one of the nicest and most helpful guys in my time covering Minnesota.

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Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation. You can also follow him on Twitter --