Minnesota Gopher Hockey vs UND Fighting Whioux Preview

UND shows their class yet again. - bringmethenews.com, University of Minnesota Athletics

The Gophers and Whioux meet for the 290th and 291st time in what is likely their last ever meeting in regular season conference play. Both teams enter the weekend with identical 8-3-3 conference records, good for 19 points and a tie for 3rd in the WCHA. Minnesota holds an edge in all-time victories (145-130-14), nicknames, and class while UND will always have the advantage in whining, cheap shots, and envy. So let the end begin tonight.

By the end of the weekend it may seem like hell is freezing over- both because of how cold it's going to be (who's excited for sub-zero highs on Monday! Anyone? Anyone? No?) and the fact it will bring the end of the last regular season conference series between Minnesota and UND. While both sides place blame for WHIOUX's responsible for the demise of the WCHA (FWIW my two cents on the issue is in the last paragraph of Tuesday's Tale of the Tape post), this is indeed the end, and unless they meet in the Final Five or NCAA tourney (both of which happened last season), they won't play again until four years from now when Minnesota's schedule opens up again.

UND fans, shockingly, are angry at Minnesota (WHAT? I never!) that these two rivals won't play again for awhile. The reason for the Gophers is quite simple: the NCAA Gophers had a requirement that schools should decided not to schedule and play a school with what was deemed an offensive nickname. UND fought and fought and fought the loss of the Fighting Sioux and as long as they held it, the U chose not to play them, and the longer it dragged on, the more Minnesota's schedule filled up. As it stands, beginning next season when the Gophs jump to the Big Ten conference, they'll now have 20 conference games, leaving 12 available for non-conference scheduling: eight of those will be occupied for the forseable ever thanks to their commitment to the other four D1 hockey programs in the state (UMD, St Cloud, Mankato and Bemidji) and two more are taken by the annual holiday tournament the Mariucci Classic. That leaves just two open dates per year, and for the next four, the Gophers have commitments already in place with Boston College and Notre Dame. The Irish drop off in four years, leaving the opportunity open to play UND again.

On the coaches' show this past Monday, head coach Don Lucia talked extensively about future scheduling, and he would like to see the Whioux perhaps every other season. He said the team really enjoyed their trip out east this year to Vermont, and if it can't be an annual event to get out to the East Coast to play somebody, he'd like to do it every other year. He said as long as the B1G schedule remains at 20 games, then they're only going to have two games per season available, and they can't do both east coast games and UND every season, so they'll likely rotate. He also pointed out that in the seasons where they play UAA in Anchorage, they're allowed two extra games per year, so it's afforded them more opportunities to play some more games. Obviously with UAA off the schedule starting next season, so too goes the possibility of two extras. Personally, I'd like to see the NCAA or whoever mandates it allow them at least two more games a year, as college hockey plays so few games as it is (especially compared to juniors and the pros), and the Gophers obviously won't have a problem finding opponents for the additional matchups. Could change, and Whioux fans will hate it, but that's where it stands right now.

For this weekend, I'm not sure what else you could ask for, because if it has to end, the only way it could be better is if these two meet somewhere down the road in the playoffs. The two are both playing good hockey, with Minnesota #1 in the national polls while UND is 5th, while the Gophers are fourth in the Pairwise and the Whioux are right behind in a tie for 5th with Notre Dame. The Gophs and UND are also tied for third in the WCHA with 19 points and both with two games in hand on Denver and UNO who sit tied for 1st with 20. With UNO off and if St Cloud plays DU tough as expected, it's very possible either Minnesota or UND could leave the weekend in 1st place.

Last season the teams met four six times and split their meetings right down the middle, with Minnesota winning three of four regular season meetings and each winning a playoff game. Last January UND took the Friday night game 2-1 and Minnesota bounced back with a 6-2 thumping as the teams combined for 19 penalties (10 for UM 9 for UND). The Whioux looked to have the last laugh, stomping the Gophers 6-3 in the Final Five finals in their home away from home at the Xcel Energy Center. While I have tried to erase that game from my memory, reading the recap I was unfortunately reminded that Minnesota had a 3-0 lead midway through the 2nd period when the wheels came completely off with six straight North Dakota goals. The only positive thing about that game is that even when things go south, Minnesota doesn't get frustrated and cheap, as they had just four penalties the entire night. You can never, ever say the same about North Dakota. While it seemed like the season might as well be over as that loss dropped Minnesota from any hope of a #1 seed, the Gophs thumped a very good BU team 7-3 in the regional to set up a rematch at the X in the regional final with the Whioux. Minnesota would have its revenge with a 5-2 win that propelled them to the Frozen Four where...well it's not important what happened in that next game.

Minnesota won the last meeting, and if they hope to win either of the next two, they're going to need to play their best hockey. And as we saw when playing BC and Notre Dame, the Gophers of this season bring their A game against the best. The past few years the concern with Minnesota on a Friday night is not being up or aggressive enough, but that won't be an issue in this series. In fact, you wonder if both coaches might be concerned about their teams being a little TOO hyped up. The players on both sides absolutely understand the significance of this series, and I would expect to be as physical as we've seen. The Gophers will want to play fast, UND will try to slow them down, and Mariucci should be rocking all weekend. UND, as always, bring plenty of skill to the table, and boast two of the country's top scorers in seniors Corban Knight (10G 21A 31pts) and Danny Kristo (13-17-30). The guy to watch however, is dynamite mighty mite freshman Rocco Grimaldi, who despite coming in with just 17 points in 20 games had a helluva World Juniors tourney for Team USA, and will be one of the fastest and most skilled players on the ice.

UND is always solid defensively, and this year is no different, led by juniors Derek Forbort- a 1st round pick of the Kings in 2010 and a f***ing traitor who hails from Duluth- and Dillon Simpson, who leads their D in scoring with 2-11-13. Goaltending for the Whioux hasn't been bad but hasn't been great either: junior Clarke Saunders has started 17 of their 22 games with a .919 save % and 2.28 GAA. Freshman Zane Gothberg, a sixth round pick of the Bruins, has struggled in five starts, and while he got the win in UND's last game against CC last Saturday he allowed 3 goals on 21 shots.

Regardless of who starts in net for UND this weekend, the matchup definitely favors Minnesota as freshman Adam Wilcox has simply been one of the best goalies in the country thus far, showing poise, confidence and aggressiveness well beyond his years. His 1.65 GAA and 1236:12 minutes played leads all WCHA goalies, and Wilcox will need to be at his best again this weekend. Playing in front of him has been one of the country's best defenses (they're the only WCHA team allowing fewer than 2 goals per hame for the season), and it looks like Lucia has his top six D locked in once again. Despite the stellar play of Jake Parenteau during the holiday tournament, Mike Reiily's return from World Juniors gold put Parenteau back on the wing for the UAA series, along with fellow D man Justin Holl. Until he feels a change is warranted, expect the pairings to be Ben Marshall-Seth Helgeson, Reilly-Mark Alt, and Nate Schmidt-Brady Skjei.

Up front, the top story continues to be the status of leading scorer Erik Haula, who remains questionable for this series with a broken finger. I had been checking Michael Russo's Twitter feed the past few days looking for a Haula update before remebering he's back to the Wild beat with the lockout over. As of this morning I still haven't seen any injury updates, so we'll assume he's questionable at best for now. As I mentioned last week, IF Haula's able to play, it's highly doubtful it'll be at center since that finger could really limit his ability to take faceoffs. Could the dream come true of Haula playing wing with Minnesota's other top two scorers Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau? Very interested to find out. While Haula's return would obviously be welcome, it's hard to say how much of an impact he'll be able to have this weekend. In his absence Christian Isackson has taken the top wing spot, while Nate Condon has done a good job on the second line centering Sam Warning and Zach Budish. I would expect that to continue, along with the third line of Travis Boyd, Tom Serratore and Seth Ambroz, who have played well together.

****HAULA UPDATE****

No sooner do I post this then Ben Clymer of FSN tweets that Haula is in for this weekend. No word of where he'll play yet though, but stay tuned.

As the higher ranked team and playing at home, that favors Minnesota coming out of the weekend with more points, but I think I'd more shocked with a sweep than a split. With the high anticipation for this one I'd expect some penalties and perhaps a lower scoring game tonight, although three of the four meetings last year were blowouts either way. As it stands, it promises to fantastic hockey this weekend between two bitter rivals meeting for the last scheduled time for at least the next four years. Both games on FSN TV and 1500ESPN on radio (welcome back to the Twin Cities airwaves to Jeff Dubay, by the way, who is the new co-host with Judd Zulgad 9-noon weekdays. Glad to have a passionate and knowledgable Gopher hockey voice back on the air) with tonight's game at 7pm and Saturday night's at 5pm because of Hockey Day in Minnesota.

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