There are a handful of top teams out East. Three of USCHO's Top 5 are Union (last year's national champion), Colgate and Boston College. No. 9 St. Cloud State travels to Union this weekend, so that'll be a good test for the defending champs. The Gophers travel to Boston the last weekend of November for games against Northeastern and Boston College. I suspect someone will pick up the BC-Gophers game for TV. That'll be a good test for the Gophers, who will have to win in Boston (home of the Frozen Four) in April if they want to win a national championship.
Bemidji State might surprise some people this weekend. The Beavers upset North Dakota in the season opener in Grand Forks and then lost to UND 2-1 in the series finale at Bemidji. The Beavers were off last weekend and had an extra week to prepare for the No. 1 Gophers. Coach Don Lucia said the Beavers are much-improved and will be a good test for his team in the home opener at Mariucci Arena. Something else to look out for is Bemidji's line of triplets. Mike Reilly said he expects a Reilly-Reilly-Reilly goal before a Fitzgerald-Fitzgerald-Fitzgerald goal.
Justin Kloos has the makeup to be a future star of this program. He led the team in goals (16) as a freshman and was the team's fourth-best scorer (32 points). He's so quick and moves the puck well. It also helps that he's skated with linemate Taylor Cammarata for several years. The two have great chemistry together and make one another better. Expect another great year from Kloos.
A quick shout out to my Salt Lake City roots. I actually did watch the Golden Eagles at the Salt Palace. It's a fading memory, but I remember the yellowish glow of the lighting and the gold in their uniforms. Now Salt Lake City hockey is played at the Maverick Center...the Grizzlies are an affiliate of the Anaheim Ducks.
This topic has been debated for a while. Fans usually call for Lucia's job any year the Gophers don't win a national championship. That's fair, but you can't argue with what he's done with the program over the last three seasons. Two Frozen Four appearances and he was was the Big Ten Coach of the Year, last year. He has said that moving to a new conference was like getting a new job and he's been reinvigorated. If he were to go, a lot of people expect associate head coach Mike Guentzel to take over. Otherwise, Minnesota could likely have its pick of coaches.
The best non-conference weekend will likely be Nov. 28-29 vs. Boston College and Northeastern. Those will be tough opponents and tough venues to play in. Although keep an eye on the home-and-home series with Minnesota Duluth (Nov. 14-15). The Bulldogs caused problems for the Gophers all last season and nearly completed a comeback on the Gophers in the season opener at the Ice Breaker Tournament. The game in Duluth will be a fun one.
This year is all about finishing the job and winning a national championship. Every returning players has talked about it and will continue to address it throughout the season.
It's my understanding that the Mariucci Arena will be downsized to a NHL-sized rink. The program is currently fundraising money and in the design process for several upgrades to the facility. I'm not sure when the changes will begin, but expect a small sheet a Mariucci in the near future.
Connor Reilly has the potential to have a breakout season. He's been plagued by two knee injuries and wasn't at 100 percent health last season. Coach Don Lucia has considered putting him in one of the top three lines and he took advantage of that opportunity in the opening weekend. Be on the lookout for his progression.
Conference expansion is always a possibility. The NCHC and Big Ten hockey commissioners are open to the idea and welcome discussions with any program that is interested. I think the Big Ten would like more Big Ten programs to add hockey, but the commissioner did mention that they would consider programs outside of the Big Ten. Men's lacrosse currently added a non-Big Ten school to its league.
Size and physicality were an issue for last year's team and that was apparent against bigger and older Union in the national championship game. I think this year it won't be as big of problem. The veterans have bulked up and four freshmen with size should play a regular role throughout the season.
Thanks for all the questions. We'll continue to do live chats throughout the season, so be on the lookout for announcements. If I didn't get to your question, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll add it to an upcoming mailbag blog post. Continue to check out the Ice Gold blog for updates and follow me on Twitter @JGonStrib. See you at Mariucci Arena this weekend.