Previews: Gophers look poised to leave the WCHA as champions

Last season’s WCHA regular season champions, the Minnesota Golden Gophers are the league’s media and coaches’ pick to finish in first place once again in the 2012-13 season. (Photo credit: Matthew Semisch)

Next October will see a long-awaited – some would say long-dreaded – major shift in the college hockey landscape, and Minnesota looks set for one last triumph before the earth starts moving.

The creation of an NCAA Division 1 hockey program at Penn State has triggered the creation of a Big Ten hockey conference, and the Golden Gophers are aiming to leave for the new league with its current conference’s hardware – and maybe even national honors, too – in tow.

There’s plenty of reason for optimism, starting with a look at what head coach Don Lucia’s team accomplished last season. The Golden Gophers finished the 2011-12 regular season at the top of the WCHA tree, posting a 28-14-1 overall record and a 20-8-0 mark in the league.

Minnesota fell in the postseason, though, losing in the WCHA Final Five semifinals to North Dakota. The Gophers then experienced an extended run in the NCAA tournament, but their season ended with a 6-1 Frozen Four semifinal pasting at the hand of eventual national champion Boston College.

This time around, Lucia’s men will be looking for more.

This season’s Gophers are absolutely loaded up front, and all three of their top-scoring forwards from last season return. Juniors Erik Haula (20 goals and 29 assists in 2011-12) and Nick Bjugstad (25 G, 17 A) and sophomore Kyle Rau (18 G, 25 A) terrorized WCHA defensemen last season, and there’s no reason to think they won’t do it again in the campaign.

It doesn’t stop with those three, though. Juniors Zach Budish (12 G, 23 A) and Nate Condon (11 G, 19 A) would be top-line stars on any other team in the league, and this year’s Gophers don’t lose much from last season’s bunch that scored 3.60 goals per game.

The Gopher blueliners aren’t as flashy as their comrades up front, but the Minnesota defensemen demand every opponent’s respect. Junior Nate Schmidt, who posted an eye-popping 38 assists last season, anchors the defense, and the Gopher D-corps should experience little or no drop-off from a 2011-12 performance that saw Minnesota finish first in the WCHA in scoring defense at 2.30 goals per game.

Kent Patterson, the league’s goaltender of the year in 2011-12, is gone, but there’s little reason for Gopher fans to fret.

Junior Michael Shibrowski, who only saw 20 minutes of action last season, will battle it out with freshman Adam Wilcox for the No. 1 job in the 2012-13 campaign. With a defense as strong as the Gophers’ though, whoever wins the role between the pipes isn’t bound to see a whole lot of vulcanized rubber come their way.

This season’s forecast certainly looks good for Lucia’s bunch. The school’s women’s team won the 2012 national championship and is favored to repeat, and we wouldn’t put it past the Minnesota men to join them at the top of the mountain come March.

Head coach: Don Lucia (Notre Dame ’81)
2011-12 record: 28-14-1 (20-8-0 WCHA)
Predicted WCHA finish in 2012-13: 1st
Home ice: Mariucci Arena; Minneapolis, Minn.
-Capacity: 10,000
-Average attendance in 2011-12: 9.539


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