Lucia sees Minnesota as close to higher level of success

Three seasons removed from their last NCAA tournament appearance, Minnesota’s tournament hopes were crushed last March when they were swept out of the first round of the WCHA playoffs at home by Alaska-Anchorage.

If the Gophers are to return to the Final Five and beyond in 2011-12, the path likely will be paved by senior Kent Patterson’s all-conference-caliber goaltending, reliable scoring depth, and the ability to persevere through the trials associated with suiting up as many as 20 underclassmen on any given night.

According to coach Don Lucia, however, postseason success is a lot closer than people may think.

“We were 1-1 with North Dakota, 1-1-2 with UMD and we beat Michigan,” Lucia said of three of last season’s Frozen Four participants. “We weren’t that far away. Now we have to find a way just to score that one more goal a game or give up that one less goal a game, and that’s really that fine line from week to week.”

While Minnesota lacks that one big-time scoring threat, it will have to rely on depth up front to find that “one more goal a game” Lucia seeks.

With leading goal scorers Mike Hoeffel (13), Jay Barriball (12) and Jacob Cepis (12) lost to graduation, the onus falls on Minnesota’s leading returning goal scorers — senior captain Taylor Matson (10) and classmate Jake Hansen (11) to step up their games.

Lucia said Matson did a tremendous job in his captain’s role over the summer.

“In all the years I’ve coached I don’t know if I’ve ever had a more hard-working player than Taylor,” said Lucia. “He’s relentless in everything he does, whether it’s in the classroom or off the ice or on the ice. He’s really set a standard.”

It could be argued that the single most significant addition to the team will never venture farther than the bench in any game this season: newly rehired assistant coach Mike Guentzel.

A key member of a staff that won two national titles in three trips to the Frozen Four, Guentzel replaces the departed John Hill after three seasons coaching elsewhere, most recently assisting Dean Blais last year at Nebraska-Omaha.

Lucia expected a seamless transition from Hill to Guentzel, and was not disappointed.

“We were able to pick up right where we left off,” said Lucia. “But you can see that he’s excited to be back, he’s enthusiastic … and I think that’s going to be infectious within our team.”

The bottom line for Minnesota is it does not have the luxury of relying on one player or one line to carry the team, so the Gophers will sink or swim on their ability to play a complete team game.

“You have to have the cohesiveness within the team and now we have to build it,” said Lucia. “I used the analogy at the start, it’s like a rock wall and not every rock is the same size in the wall but you have to have every rock to hold up the wall.”

About the Golden Gophers

2010-11 overall record: 16-4-6

2010-11 WCHA record: 13-10-5 (fifth)

2011-12 predicted finish (coaches poll): Sixth

Key losses: F Jay Barriball, F Jacob Cepis, F Mike Hoeffel, D Aaron Ness

Players to watch: F Jake Hansen, F Taylor Matson, F Erik Haula, F Nick Bjugstad, D Mark Alt, G Kent Patterson

Impact rookie: F Kyle Rau

Why the Gophers will finish higher than the coaches poll: The seniors lead the way and the freshmen live up to the hype, adapting quickly to the WCHA pace.

Why the Gophers will finish lower than the coaches poll: Experience lacked by players expected to play key roles and any sort of health issue for Patterson.