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Minnesota Gopher hockey vs Minnesota-Duluth: Let the real games begin

TGIF, Gopher fans. Hockey season starts tonight, and there's not a football game tomorrow! Ok, ok cheap shot but I think we can all use a weekend off from Gopher football. For the hockey team, they've looked good thus far in an exhibition weekend sweep of UBC two weeks ago, and what might as well have been an "exhibition" sweep of Sacred Heart in a 15-0 thumping last. Tonight and tomorrow the quality of play ramps up a wee bit, as the Gophers make the short trip up I-35 to Duluth to take on the defending national champion UMD Bulldogs. The young Gophs had two weeks to get prepared for the WCHA and it begins in a big way.

For a full look at both squads, check out GPL's weekend preview. The defending champs aren't quite the same team as last year, as they lost top line players Mike Connolly and Justin Fontaine and fab freshman defenseman Justin Faulk, but return plenty of firepower. Winger Jack Connolly should be one of the country's best players and he's only centered by last year's Frozen Four MVP JT Brown. So yeah, they've got some talent back, but are they as deep as last year's championship team?

Let's hope not, but I'd much rather get them this early in the season than in January or February when they're younger guys have had a few months to figure it out. Then again, just about all of Minnesota's top talent is young too...yeah I'd still rather get Duluth now than later in the year.

A few questions then for this weekend, and the season...

The Gopher's best player will be...?
Easy answer would be senior goalie Kent Patterson, who is the only Gopher named 2nd team all-conference last season. While Patterson should be stellar again, here's hoping he won't have to quite as noticeable, as he faced a whopping 901 shots last season. To put that in perspective, last year's first team all-conference goalie Aaron Dell of UND faced only 534 in just four less starts. Less is more, and while it's nice to know your goalie can win a game or two for you, let's hope he gets some help.

But my choice would be sophomore center Nick Bjugstad. The 6'5 pivot really came into his own by the end of the season, and as the first line and top power play center, he's going to get every opportunity this season. Bjugstad potentially has the total package, and he could be a top player in the WCHA this season. Of course, if he is, it's likely his last season in Dinkytown, but we'll worry about that in the off season.

Best newcomer?
It's not any of the freshmen, but instead sophomore forward Zach Budish, who has hardly played at the U due to knee injuries. The 6'3, 215 pound freight train is your prototypical power forward, who can score, skate, and knock opponents into next week. It's an element that's been missing from the Gopher forwards, and the duo of Budish and Bjugstad could be lethal. If he can stay healthy and if his knee is sound, he's the best bet to be the Gophs' top goal scorer.

Fine, besides Budish, who's the best newcomer?
The Diminutive One, former Eden Prairie forward Kyle Rau is only 5'8 and playing straight out of high school. But that hasn't stopped him from already jumping to the top line, and has shown some of his brilliance right out of the gate. It sets up to be a perfectly crafted top line, as Budish and Bjugstad can do the physical stuff leaving Rau to wheel and deal. The big sheet at Mariucci was made for a player like Rau, and he should take full advantage.

Unless, the best newcomer is a defenseman?
As you know, the D is the key to the season. Patterson's proved he can play well even if the guys in front of him aren't, and the forwards can/should be able to light it up in WCHA play. Mike Guentzel was brought back to fix a defense that has struggled since he left in 2008, and he's got a talented but very young group to deal with. Freshman Ben Marshall may end up being the leader of this group. While Aaron Ness isn't an exact comparison, Marshall is another small D (just 5'9) who skates and moves the puck very well, and could be an excellent power-play quarterback. Ness never quite developed into the top offensive defenseman he was pegged to be, and it's asking a LOT of Marshall to be that same guy in his first year on campus. Still, he's going to be given every opportunity because his skill set is unique among the D men this season, and while he's certainly going to look like a freshmen on some nights, here's hoping he looks like so much more on plenty of others.

Most underrated?
Has to be second line center Eric Haula. Bjugstad will get all the headlines in the middle- and rightfully so- but Haula is an excellent two-way player who led the team last year at +10- and was also the fourth leading scorer with 24 points. He'll play in all situations, and should be an anchor on that second line and on the penalty kill. His development is a very important part of the Gophers' season, and we have every reason to believe he has another excellent season.

Two years ago Seth Ambroz was projected to be a lock for the first round of the NHL draft. As a 16 year old he was already 6'2 and over 200 pounds, and was showing the potential to be a bonafide power forward. Two years later, Ambroz slipped all the way to the fifth round of the NHL draft due to scout's concerns about his development. He still has the size at 220 pounds, and we believe still has the skill to be an excellent player. I don't know enough to even take a guess at what happened to Ambroz the past two seasons in the USHL, but he'll be given every opportunity to prove all of his doubters wrong. The kid SHOULD have a chip on his shoulder the size of Goldy Gopher to prove himself this year, he'll just have to earn it, as he'll likely start on the team's third line and then have to work his way up.

Finally, what about the seniors not named Kent Patterson?
As the GPL preview points out, everyone is talking about Patterson and all the young kids, but don't forget about a couple of senior forwards in captain Taylor Matson and assistant captain Jake Hansen. Matson's not going to be a huge point producer on the team's third line, but looks to be an excellent leader and a perfect choice as captain. His wheels, smarts and grit will be on display on a nightly basis in a lead-by-example, well, example. Hansen was given a shot early to play on the second line with Haula and Nate Condon, and responded with a team-high 6 points last weekend. That second line could prove to be just as lethal as the first, giving Minnesota two top scoring lines. What's more, as GPL says, Hansen also played very well in his own end against Sacred Heart, which would be another great lead-by-example opportunity that needs to continue all season long. While they might not to be top-line guys, both Matson and Hansen should be crucial parts of the team.