Balance, depth return for WCHA favorite Minnesota

Last season was one of resurgence and a return to relevance for Minnesota.

Considering what the Gophers have coming back at forward and defense, Minnesota is built for another run to the Frozen Four.

Minnesota’s win against Boston University in the regional semifinals was the first career NCAA tournament game for last season’s seniors.

The Gophers thrived off a balanced offense and a sturdy defense last season, and those will be the strengths of this season, too.

“We have a good nucleus of returning players,” coach Don Lucia said. “We have a few kids that had an opportunity to turn professional and decided not to.”

Junior Nick Bjugstad, one of the nation’s top goal scorers last season, finished with a team-high 25 goals and 42 points and is the WCHA preseason player of the year. His linemates, senior Zach Budish (12-23–35) and sophomore Kyle Rau (18-25–43), also return.

“We have experience, we have the depth and I’m hoping we can put it together,” Bjugstad said. “This is one of the tighter-knit groups I’ve ever been a part of and I think that’ll be beneficial on the ice.”

Sophomore Christian Isackson skated with Bjugstad and Rau on the top line in the exhibition game against Lethbridge and scored three times.

Erik Haula led the surge for Minnesota throughout the postseason last year, scoring 11 of his team-leading 49 points in six playoff games.

The speedy Nate Condon finished with 30 points in 2011-12 and is a key special teams player. The Gophers expect secondary scoring from sophomores Ben Marshall and Sam Warning.

Freshmen Brady Skjei and Mike Reilly will bolster an already strong defensive corps, led by senior Seth Helgeson and junior Nate Schmidt.

“Defense is a real strength to our team,” Lucia said. “We have a lot of depth back there. We feel like we have nine guys who can play.”

Schmidt had a lot of success as the point man of the seventh-ranked Minnesota power play (22.8 percent), where he scored all three of his goals last year with his booming slap shot.

The Gophers scored 43 power-play goals last year and Schmidt assisted on 31 of them.

Minnesota allowed just 2.30 goals per game last season despite goalie Kent Patterson’s lukewarm .907 save percentage. If the defense plays like it did last season, that kind of goaltending could be enough to get the job done.

Adam Wilcox and Michael Shibrowski will compete for the No. 1 goalie spot after Patterson’s graduation.

About the Gophers

2011-12 overall record: 28-14-1

2011-12 WCHA record: 20-8-0 (first)

2012-13 predicted finish (coaches poll): First

Key losses: G Kent Patterson, F Jake Hansen

Players to watch: F Erik Haula, F Nick Bjugstad, F Kyle Rau, F Nate Condon, D Nate Schmidt, D Mark Alt

Impact rookie: D Brady Skjei

Why the Gophers will win the MacNaughton with ease: This is one of the strongest defensive corps in Don Lucia’s 14 years at Minnesota. The defense will make up for lack of experience between the pipes and the Gophers have plenty of firepower on offense.

Why the Gophers will finish lower than the coaches poll: Kent Patterson was a good enough goaltender when he needed to be, especially when the offense hit a dry spell in January, but another scoring drought with an unpolished goalie could be a bad combination.