Minneapolis, MN – Minnesota’s return to the rink went according to plan Saturday night as the Golden Gophers defeated the University of Lethbridge 7-0 in an exhibition game at Mariucci Arena.
The defending WCHA champions, who led college hockey last year in goals per game, didn’t take long to get going. A five minute major to Lethbridge forward Mark Hall for checking Zach Budish from behind 4:17 into the game proved to be the catalyst for two of sophomore Christian Isackson’s three goals. He completed the hat trick 1:08 into the second period while fellow sophomore Sam Warning added another goal 25 seconds later to make it 4-0 Minnesota.
Not to be outdone, the Gopher defense got involved in the scoring five minutes later. Freshman Mike Reilly set up junior Mark Alt at the top of the point and the Carolina Hurricane prospect slapped a one-timer past Lethbridge goalie Dylan Tait. The third period saw emotions escalate on both sides, amounting to 31 minutes in penalties between the two teams. It didn’t change Minnesota’s momentum, however, and two goals by Ben Marshall and Seth Ambroz completed the scoring barrage.
What I saw
-With everyone except for defenseman Blake Thompson (who the team is thinking about redshirting) and backup goalies Ryan Coyne and Matt LaPrade dressing, University of Minnesota head coach Don Lucia unveiled new line combinations. Isackson, who was pointless in 11 games last year, was on the first line right wing alongside Kyle Rau and Nick Bjugstad. Last year’s top right winger, Zach Budish, was instead slotted into the second line with Sam Warning and Erik Haula.
On defense, all three pairs from 2011-2012 were split up while Lucia tries to figure out how to fit eight defensemen into six spots. Freshmen Brady Skjei, a 2012 first round pick by the New York Rangers, and Mike Reilly, who led all BCHL defensemen in points last year, join the six defensemen from last year’s squad.
The power play, meanwhile, looked similar to last year with Bjugstad, Rau and Budish reunited and Haula once again finding himself on the point.
– Skjei had a “welcome to college hockey” moment after getting caught looking at a pass by Lethbridge’s Kyle Mclachlan that he could have gotten away on the USNTDP. He also wasn’t afraid to dish it out and the 6’2”, 197 lbs freshman came to the defense of Nick Bjugstad in the third period.
What I thought
-Lucia mentioned after the game that he believed to the key to this season would be a few of the sophomores stepping up and specifically named Christian Isackson, Travis Boyd and Seth Ambroz. All three did that Saturday but no one more than Isackson. Although the Buffalo Sabres prospect was given a great opportunity playing on the first line, Isackson proved to hold his own. Each of his first two goals was set up Boyd and Ben Marshall rather than Bjugstad and Rau. He had two more great chances to score in the first that were stopped by Tait; however, like Boyd at the end of last year and Nate Schmidt (who went from 1 point as a freshman to 41 as a sophomore) it looks like the sophomore may have turned a corner in his development.
-While Gopher goalies Mike Shibrowski and Adam Wilcox combined for a shutout, neither was tested much. Lethbridge struggled to create offense when they were at even strength and ended up being out-shot 65-16. Shibrowski, a junior who played twenty minutes last season behind the departed Kent Patterson, and freshman Wilcox each made eight saves in their 30 minute stints although Shibrowski faced the tougher chances of the two. It was only an exhibition but having two goalies stand tall and not give Lethbridge rebounds in their few scoring opportunities is big for a team whose biggest question mark coming into the season was goaltending.
What they said
-Christian Isackson on his summer between freshman and sophomore year: “I talked to (Nate Schmidt) a lot. I worked hard. I really put my head to the grindstone over the summer and came in trying to be as positive as I can.
-Nate Schmidt on Mike Reilly: “He’s an ‘Alex Goligoski-type’ player.”
What else you should know
-Minnesota’s 7 goals were scored by five players who combined last year to score 20 goals or five less than Nick Bjugstad. On the other end of the spectrum, the top 5 returning scorers (Erik Haula, Bjugstad, Kyle Rau, Nate Schmidt and Zach Budish) from 2011-2012 combined for four assists Saturday.
-Saturday’s game was the first time someone other than Kent Patterson started for Minnesota in goal since December 3, 2010.
-Defenseman Justin Holl took a vicious hit at the end of the game but appeared to be fine and in good spirits after the game.
-Mariucci Arena received a few cosmetic changes in the offseason with a new HD scoreboard and sound system.
-Attendance was announced as 7,283.