Morale is high among the Gophers following 3 games and 3 victories in which the team scored a combined 21 goals and recorded a pair of shutouts. Taking away the fact one came in an exhibition, Minnesota (2-0-0, 0-0-0-0 Big Ten) begins 2016-17 in much better a shape. This time last season the Gophers had three losses and been shut out twice, scoring a single goal.
Now the real test begins.
Minnesota enters a stretch beginning Friday against St. Cloud State where 11 of its next 12 games are against teams currently ranked in the top 20. After the games in Alaska to start the season, not until the final weekend of the first half do the Gophers have a full two-game series against an unranked team.
“A big aspect of what we want to look forward to is non-conference so it helps us going into the Big Ten tournament,” said Vinni Lettieri.
One reason for the tough non-conference schedule has to do with the number of quality teams in the Upper Midwest. All five Minnesota D1 men’s hockey programs are currently ranked in the top-20, led by #2 Minnesota Duluth. In addition to the 7th ranked Gophers, Minnesota State is 9th while St. Cloud State is 14th and Bemidji State is 18th.
“I think that speaks volumes to that they’re all good programs. They’ve all found success as we’ve branched off. Bemidji and Mankato might be the two best teams in the WCHA this year. Obviously St. Cloud has been very successful in their league,” said head coach Don Lucia. “Obviously it’s good for hockey in our state and you look at the commitment the schools have for their programs. The new buildings up in Duluth and Bemidji, the renovations in Mankato and St. Cloud.
“They’re premier programs in the country. That’s the reality. That’s why they’re having success.”
Going across the Red River, upcoming opponent North Dakota is the defending national champion and top-ranked school.
It’s a new year, Lucia said, but doing well in non-conference remains important even if the team tries not to get ahead of itself. Struggling against non-Big Ten teams, and other Minnesota schools in particular, has been a problem after two consecutive fourth-place finishes in the North Star College Cup and a single win in 8 attempts against Minnesota schools last season. That cost the Gophers at the end of the year when it came a game short of making the NCAA Tournament.
It kicks off with a home-and-home series against the Huskies, a team that swept Minnesota at Mariucci Arena a year ago. Friday’s game is in Minneapolis while Saturday’s series finale goes up the road to St. Cloud beginning at 7:00 p.m. Both games are televised on Fox Sports North Plus.
St. Cloud State, swept on the road by Minnesota State in its opener, returns much of its defensive core but has to replace its goaltender and top six scorers from a team that earned the second overall seed in the NCAA Tournament before being upset by Ferris State. Going up to the Huskies’ home rink is something junior forward Leon Bristedt looks forward.
“We know we’re playing a good ranked team,” he said. “Since I have got here we have been a little up and down against St. Cloud so I’m really excited to get going.”
As a freshman Minnesota faced St. Cloud State at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center on Halloween.
Brent Gates Jr. practiced Wednesday on a line with Tommy Novak and Tyler Sheehy. The sophomore forward, who leads the team with 3 goals in 2 games, takes the place of Taylor Cammarata in the top-nine. Cammarata practiced on the fourth line with Darian Romanko and Jack Ramsey. The rest of the top-nine was similar to the lineup for the US U-18 game where Connor Reilly played with Justin Kloos and Mike Szmatula.
Gates showed chemistry with Novak during the US U-18 game as the pair combined for three goals in the 9-0 exhibition win.
“Playing with guys like Tommy and Tyler, who are really skilled players and unselfish players, very poised with the puck, it makes my job a lot easier. I just try to find open space and most of the time they are able to get the puck to me,” he said after Friday’s game. “They’re easy guys to play with.”
There’s the usual dings and bruises, but Lucia said he expected the normal lineup to play with a healthy Jack Glover. He also alluded to getting several players into the lineup for a game. That could be good news for Ryan Norman and either of the freshmen defensemen.
On the St. Cloud State side, freshman Nick Poehling remains sidelined after undergoing offseason knee surgery. He is not expected to be cleared until early November at the earliest.
Lettieri on breaking sticks:
If you follow me on Twitter, one running bit has been the number of sticks that Lettieri breaks during games. Not counting numerous broken sticks in practice, Lettieri ended with 15 broken sticks in games last season as a junior.
Although Lettieri has been a good sport, he was asked about cutting down on the number.
“Hopefully not close to what I had last year. That was pretty disappointing. Hopefully that doesn’t happen to me,” he said.
One thing that may help Lettieri’s sticks is not having the wear and tear of taking so many face-offs as a wing with Rem Pitlick rather than center the line. Lucia’s rationale for placing Pitlick there for now despite Lettieri being one of the top face-off guys in the country has to do with not having as many right handed shots (like Lettieri) in the lineup along with the success Pitlick had in the USHL as center.
If you’re going to Friday’s game, give yourself some extra time to get to Mariucci Arena prior to the 8 p.m. start. This weekend is homecoming weekend. University Avenue will be closed beginning at 6:30 pm Friday for the homecoming parade. Use alternate routes like I-94 and Huron Boulevard.
Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate