To our readers: Thank you for taking part in our Mailbag Monday this week. Star Tribune beat writers received many questions about the teams and leagues we cover, and each writer selected at least a couple of questions to answer. Look for a question and answer about various teams in Wednesday’s Star Tribune.
Q: Out of the college hockey schools who had a chance to 3-peat. You think UMD (2020), Denver (2006), UMTC (2004), etc...who had the best chance?
A: That’s an intriguing question, Jacob. There’s an argument to be made for each squad, and it sure would’ve been interesting to see if Minnesota Duluth accomplished that feat this year. The Bulldogs have a bit of an advantage among the three because their fate still was uncertain while Denver’s and the Gophers’ were known.
I’ll start with the team that finished furthest from a three-peat, and that’s Denver. The Pioneers (21-15-3 in 2005-06) had a talented roster, led by Hobey Baker Award winner Matt Carle and sophomore standout Paul Stastny, but struggled early, going 4-7 in nonconference games. Denver rallied in the second half of the season and finished in a second-place tie with eventual national champion Wisconsin in the WCHA standings, six points behind the Gophers. The Pioneers’ promising season, however, ended in the first round of the WCHA playoffs when UMD won a three-game series at Magness Arena. Denver finished 16th in the PairWise Ratings and missed the NCAA tournament by two spots.
That leaves the 2004 Gophers and 2020 Bulldogs.
For the Gophers, the 2003-04 season started with the team looking nothing like a back-to-back national champion. After a tie and loss at Wisconsin in mid-November, Minnesota had a 2-7-1 record. But led by Thomas Vanek (26 goals, 25 assists, 51 points) and Troy Riddle (24-25-49), the Gophers went on a run, winning eight of nine and 17 of 21 to return to normalcy. Late-season sweeps at the hands of UMD and eventual national champion Denver left the Gophers tied for fourth with the Pioneers in the final WCHA standings. Zach Parise-led North Dakota won the conference, with UMD and Wisconsin following in order.
The Gophers’ kryptonite throughout the season was UMD, with the Bulldogs sweeping both regular-season series. When Minnesota (27-14-3) beat UMD 7-4 in the WCHA Final Five semifinals, the hex temporarily ended. The next week, however, the Bulldogs defeated the Gophers 3-1 in the Midwest Regional final in Grand Rapids, Mich., ending the three-peat hopes for standout seniors such as Riddle, Matt Koalska and three-year captain Grant Potulny.
That leaves us with the 2019-20 Bulldogs, and to whom I’ll give a slight edge over the 2003-04 Gophers in chances to three-peat. Both teams started slowly but improved as the season went on against rugged conference competition.
The difference is in goal, where UMD (22-10-2) had Hunter Shepard, a battle-tested senior with two national titles under his belt, while the Gophers relied on freshman Kellen Briggs in 2003-04. Travis Weber, who backstopped the team to the 2003 crown, left the program because of personal reasons just before the season. Briggs posted a 25-10-3 mark with a 2.61 goals-against average and .894 save percentage that season. Shepard started every game this season and had a 2.18 GAA and .918 save percentage entering the NCHC tournament.
It’s too bad we won’t get to see the potential NCHC playoff matchup between the Bulldogs and regular-season champion North Dakota, along with a possible UMD-UND matchup in the Frozen Four.
Q: You get to make one game that was cancelled due to Covid-19 actually get played -- which one is it and why?
A: Well, I can’t pick the entire 15 games in the NCAA tournament, so I’ll have to pare it down. As I mentioned in the last response, another game or two between North Dakota and Minnesota Duluth would’ve been a treat, and it would’ve been interesting to see if the Gophers ended their eight-game winless streak at Penn State in the Big Ten semifinals.
The game I most wanted to see was Minnesota State Mankato’s first-round NCAA tournament contest. The Mavericks are 0-6 all-time in the Division I tournament, and the past two years they fell 3-2 in overtime to eventual champion Minnesota Duluth and 6-3 to Providence in Providence after leading 3-0 in the first period. Led by Hobey Baker top 10 finalists in forward Marc Michaelis and goalie Dryden McKay, Minnesota State had a deep, talented, veteran roster and carried a 31-5-2 record into the WCHA semifinals when the season was scuttled. Critics discount the Mavericks’ WCHA competition, and it’s true they went 9-0-1 against Ferris State, Alaska Anchorage and Alabama Huntsville – squads that were 56th through 58th among 60 teams in the PairWise Ratings. However, MSU showed it can beat the big boys by posting a win and a tie vs. North Dakota and sweeping UMD 4-1 and 3-1 in Duluth. A first-round NCAA breakthrough just might have been a springboard to four wins for coach Mike Hastings’ team.
Q: What are the Gophers’ chances for contending for a title next year? They seem to be returning most of their roster. Also, do they have any highly rated recruits coming in that could impact the team? It feels as though they haven’t recruited any top incoming freshmen like they used to regularly earlier in the decade.
A: The Gophers certainly took their lumps early in the 2019-20 season, going 5-9-4 into the December break. Starting with the Mariucci Classic, however, a team that relied on nine freshmen playing regular roles grew up, going on an 8-1 run. That bodes well for next season, and the development should continue for a team that loses only three seniors. I expect the Gophers to contend for the Big Ten regular-season title, which they did this season, and make the NCAA tournament and be a factor in it.
For next season, coach Bob Motzko plans to bring in four or five freshmen, and defensemen Mike Koster and Brock Faber have signed national letters-of-intent for 2020-21. They could help fill the void on the blue line created by the graduation of seniors Tyler Nanne and Ryan Zuhlsdorf. As for recruiting, one of Motzko’s aims is to make his team older, and that was apparent with freshmen contributors like Ben Meyers, Jaxon Nelson and Jonny Sorenson, among others, spending multiple years in junior hockey. Though Motzko as Minnesota’s head coach hasn’t yet landed a top-five NHL draft pick like the Gophers had in Thomas Vanek, Phil Kessel and Erik Johnson, his recruiting has filled the team’s needs and his freshman class from this season has the potential to be very productive.
Q: Any chance that Mariucci will be renovated to alter rink size?
A: It’s a case of when, not if, it will happen. The university has long-term plans to reduce the size of the ice sheet at 3M Arena at Mariucci to a hybrid size of 200 feet by 92.5 feet, which splits the difference between its current Olympic size (200 by 100) and the NHL size (200 by 85). The project is in the fundraising stages, and no specific date for construction has been set.