Yes the Gophers along with the evil red menace to the east, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State have all become inaugural members of the Big Ten Hockey Conference. The WCHA still exists, but won't have most of its past notable members as not only has Minnesota and Wisconsin headed to the Big Ten, but North Dakota, St Cloud State, UMD and others decided that they wanted to run to another conference as well, so they are now in the NCHC, otherwise known as the Nacho conference. Mmmmmm Nachos.
So the Gophers will not be playing some of the usual teams you would have recognized in the past. No Denver, Colorado College, or either most annoyingly or happily, North Dakota will not be seen on the schedule until at least 2015-16. Instead Minnesota will be playing 20 games (2 each home and away) against its Big Ten Conference foes. For those who worry about the future of Minnesota hockey, no worries as the Gophers will play each of the other four Division I schools in Minnesota for at least one game, and most for two. The Gophers will host UMD and Minnesota State for 2 games each in November, and will play 2 games up in Bemidji next weekend. The last game comes against St. Cloud in the Friday night game of the inaugural North Star College Cup to be played in January at the Xcel Energy Center. The Gophers/Huskies winner will play the winner of UMD and MSU on Saturday night, and the losers will play Saturday afternoon.
The other big game on the Gophers schedule is the Hockey City Classic which will take place on January 17th against Ohio State outdoors at a rink constructed on TCF Bank Stadium's field.
The Gophers will round out their schedule with four additional non-conference series, @Notre Dame, at home against Boston College, the Mariucci Classic and this weekend's Icebreaker Classic at Mariucci Arena.
There are plenty of additional Gopher previews that go in depth on the players who have left the program to head to the pro ranks or have graduated, and the freshmen who have come in to replace them, so I encourage you to check them out if you are so inclined. We shall cover several of the players over the course of the season here, but there is not enough time to do it all today. I will however quickly attempt to handicap the Big Ten Conference race:
Projected Big Ten Conference Finish
1. MinnesotaThe Gophers did lose several notable players to the pros including Nick Bjugstad, Nate Schmidt, and Zach Budish, however they return arguably the best goalie in the Big Ten in Adam Wilcox, the biggest big game player in Kyle Rau, and between Taylor Cammarata, Justin Kloos, Hudson Fasching, and Lou Nanne's grandson Vinni Lettieri should have the best freshman class in the Big Ten. All this comes together in time for the Gophers to take the inaugural crown.
2. WisconsinThe Badgers were predicted to finish first by the coaches and many in the media this season, and they return a ton of firepower, so that was to be expected. However, I don't think Joel Rumpel is quite as good a goalie as many think he is, and Wisconsin's slow methodical playing style will be tested by several uptempo teams like Minnesota and Michigan in the Big Ten. They also got the whole losing to bad teams thing going on as well losing at home to Penn State last February. They still get the first round bye in the Big Ten Tournament come March.
3. MichiganThe Wolverines missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in 22 years last season, but Red Berenson will have them rearing to go to get back this season. Michigan will miss Jacob Truba who has moved on the the NHL after one season in Ann Arbor, but they bring in three freshmen who just need to move across the town from the US Under 18 Program. Michigan will be back to the top soon, but not quite yet.
4. Michigan StateThe Spartans did not have a very good year last year. There is no way to put it. Their two best players are also out for the first month of the season this year after off-season surgeries. However, MSU coach Tom Anastos has the team bought into his program in his third year and the injuries early may be a blessing in disguise when the backloaded Big Ten schedule comes around after the end of the year.
5. Ohio StateThe Buckeyes had a bit of a rough offseason as their former coach Mark Osiecki was fired to the surprise of many in the college hockey world. His departure made waves as several of his high profile recruits he had coming to Columbus decided to find other schools. His former assistant, Steve Rohlik has taken over and will have a hard time trying to keep up in a tough conference with a new goalie after Brady Hjelle graduated.
6. Penn StateAnd now we come to the kids who forced this whole thing in the first place. Penn State gets a huge donation from alum Terry Pegula, and a few years later a decent club team is playing in a brand new arena at a Division I level. The Nittany Lions did beat three Big Ten teams last season (Wisconsin Michigan State, Ohio State) so they could be better then many expect in their first year. They will be led by Gopher transfer Max Gardiner
Icebreaker Classic PreviewEnough of this everyone else crap, lets talk about the Gophers and what they will be dealing with this weekend. The fifth ranked Minnesota team is hosting the annual college hockey kickoff tournament this season named the Icebreaker Classic. The Gophers are coming off of a 5-1 exhibition win last weekend over Lethbridge, a Canadian college. The game ended up being more of a wresting match then a hockey game as Kyle Rau played the AJ Pierzynski character to the Lethbridge squad drawing several penalties and causing at least two melees. Rau will be centering the first line for the Gophers this season, most likely this weekend with Lettieri and Junior Sam Warning who did not play against Lethbridge. The Gophers will open Friday night at 7:00 against Mercyhurst. The Lakers are predicted to win the Atlantic Hockey Conference this season, so they most likely will not be a complete pushover, but the Gophers are definitely the better team. The Gophers and Lakers have meet once in the past, in the first round of the 2003 NCAA Tournament when the Gophers cruised to a 9-2 win at Mariucci en route to their second consecutive NCAA title.
Mercyhurst Lakers All Namers:#7 Randy Cure Sr-D
#8 John Mousso Sr-F
#10 Nardo Nagtzaam Jr-F
#29 Spencer Bacon Fr-G
And of course the girls:
|Mercyhurst Dance Team|
The other two teams in the Icebreaker Classic, Clarkson and New Hampshire will face off at 4:00 in Friday with the losers playing at 4:00 on Saturday and the winners playing at 7:00 Saturday night.
Since we obviously don't know who Minnesota will play on Saturday, here's some girls for both teams to tide you over under next week: