Minnesota Gopher Hockey: Weekend Series vs. North Dakota

Two good buddies of mine (who both happened to be named Josh) went to school at North Dakota State in Fargo, North Dakota. Visiting them on several occasions I learned two things:

1) Fargo was actually an awesome place to go to school. I had never been to Fargo before, so my only knowledge of the place was the movie and that it was cold, flat and windy. After hanging out up there, the latter three things remained true, but it really didn't matter because with three schools- NDSU, Concordia, and Minnesota State-Moorehead- all within just a few miles of each other there was always something going on. Lots of bars and lots of parties full of college kids (all of legal drinking age, of course) meant there was always something to do and see. I got up there a few more times after that, and never had a bad time.

2) Sioux Suck S***. NDSU's biggest rival was and is UND, and I learned early to hate the Fighting Sioux, and the meaning of "SSS." This has translated well to Gopher hockey since arguably Minnesota's biggest rival is UND. I should actually use the term "rival" loosely right now since in their past 13 regular season and playoff meetings over the last three years the Gophs are 3-7-3 against the Sioux.

So it's strange that barring a playoff meeting, this will be the last time Minnesota will play The Fighting Sioux as The Fighting Sioux. As you probably know, UND was one of the few colleges who were unable to get approval to keep their American Indian nickname (bigger schools like Illinois and Florida State did, and of course, the Washington Redskins still exist. Because that's not offensive or anything), so on August 15, 2011 the University of North Dakota will be retiring the nickname.

(Fun fact: all depictions and images of the Fighting Sioux name and logo need to be completely removed from the campus. If you've ever been to "The Ralph", UND's palacial hockey arena where the Sioux logo is quite literally EVERYWHERE- including carved into granite pillars throughout the concourse- you know that's not going to be a fun or even plausible task.)

The replacement nickname? There isn't one right now, which is probably a wise choice since fans would probably loathe whatever replaced it. I'm sure the bloggosphere replacement in our infinite creativity will simply be The Fighting Sioux , but we'll see what happens.

But what's also strange is for this series to be coming up, and as a Gopher fan, instead of being fired up to talk trash with Sioux fans, we're just hoping to be competitive. Reminds me far too much of my feelings on the Gopher football rivalries with Wisconsin and Iowa (except that WE BEAT IOWA!!!! WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!! SUCK IT HAWKEYES!!!! That never gets old. Ever). Hopefully this series will resemble the last football meeting with Iowa instead of with Wisconsin. Bucking Fadgers.

Actually, looking at the Gophers and Sioux on paper, and a more apt football comparison might be Minnesota and Ohio State. Uh oh.

Onto the preview!

The Fighting Sioux (see I'm already getting the hang of it for next year) are tops in the WCHA at 11-3 and are #2 in the country at 16-5-2 overall. And they've done that against a redonkulous schedule: non-conference games have included road trips to #20 Alaska, #13 Maine, and a home series with #8 Notre Dame, and their conference series have been included #5 Duluth, #6 Denver, #9 Wisconsin, #11 Nebraska-Omaha, and #19 Colorado College. So their 16 wins have and 84-54 goal differential have been well earned.

As to be expected with a team with credentials like that, the Sioux are deep, loaded, and have a nice blend of experience and youth. But hey, at least their not playing well right now...oh wait, they've won 12 of their past 13 coming in. Their top line, dubbed the Pony Express by the Grand Forks media, might be the best in college hockey: Seniors Brad Malone, Evan Trupp and Matt Frantin have been beasts all year, as through 23 games Frantin leads the country in goals (20), and is tops on the Sioux with 28 points, while Trupp and Malone are tied for fourth in team scoring with 20 points. They're three of five UND skaters with at least 20 points (for reference, Minnesota has just one guy who's cracked the 20 point plateau thus far), and one those five is senior defenseman Chay Chenoway. Potential All-American Chenoway leads what might only be the nation's best and deepest defensive core. Of course he does. Behind them is goalie sophomore goalie Aaron Dell, who actually has not been the best or greatest anything thus far, but he's been more than good enough, as he leads the conference with a sparkling 1.94 GAA. However, he has only the 10th best save percentage in conference play at .910, and is facing just 20 shots a night. Compare that to Gopher goalie Kent Patterson, who leads the conference in save % (.931) and has been facing an average of 32 shots per game in WCHA play, and it looks like Dell's success might be a result of the talent in front of him.

As Ryan Cardinal points out in his lengthy and always excellent preview over at GPL, the Sioux's one weakness might be their penchant for taking penalties. However, as he admits, UND also has the conference's 2nd best penalty kill (of course they do), so Minnesota will have their work cut out for them in that area...and really everywhere else. As it always is, capitilizing on those power plays and staying out of the box themselves will be huge, but to use the old cliche "the Gophers best players need to be their best players." Patterson needs to continue to stand on his head for Minnesota to have a chance, and they're going to need their own top line- and top three scorers- of Jay Barriball, Jacob Cepis, and Mike Hoeffel to put some pucks in the net. Oh and they're going to continue to count heavily on two freshmen centers- World Juniors participants Nick Bjugstad and Erik Huala, who need to play older and wiser than they are. Both looked good in the WJC and Bjugstad had four points in the tuneup vs the USA U-18 squad last week, so hopefully his momentum carries over.

As a Gopher football fan, I'm too used to cheering for the underdog in rivalry games, and it'll continue this weekend. The Gophs have a tall task ahead of them up in Grand Forks, but hopefully they'll be up to the very large challenge. The puck drops at 7:30 tonight and 7 tomorrow night, both on FSN.

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