Last week Gopher football hosted our biggest football rival Iowa (until Minnesota starts beating Wisconsin more than once a decade, it's not our biggest rivalry. It's just not) and pulled the upset to beat the Hawkeyes. Again. This weekend, it's our most hated hockey rival as UND comes to Mariucci this weekend (this isn't even close right? It's UND and then Wisconsin or whomever else is a distant and much less hated second). Let's hope the Twin Cities is ready for back-to-back weekends of obnoxious rival fans because the Sue will bring it. The past four years, Minnesota fans have had little to cheer about as the Sioux continue to win and win and win and remind us of it every step of the way. Well this year could be different.
This year COULD be about crushing the Sue and getting back to the top of the conference and the college hockey world where the Minnesota Gopher program belongs. The Gophs had a stellar first month against a weak schedule (just one top 20 opponent in UMD) while UND struggled against a tougher slate- loss to #1 BC at home, win and tie against #20 Maine, swept at the Kohl Center by Bucky, and a split last weekend with...St Cloud State? AT HOME?!? You do not lose at the soon-to-be Sioux-less Ralph!
Ah, but they have. As Ryan Cardinal says in his weekend preview on GPL, UND is
rebuilding reloading after losing a LOT of talent from last year's Frozen Four team:
As expected, the Sioux are off to a slow start, as they bring a 3-4-1 record with them to Minneapolis. Last year’s Sioux team was the best in the nation from start to finish but of course they were upset by Michigan in the Frozen Four semifinals. Gone are the likes of Matt Frattin, Evan Trupp, Jason Gregoire, Brad Malone, and Brett Hextall up front, and from the backend, seniors Chay Genoway, Jake Marto, and Derrick LaPoint moved on as well.
Watch this for a gentle reminder on how a Sioux fan reacts to Michigan at the Frozen Four. That one just never gets old...
So anyway, yes, the Sioux lost a ton (or as half their roster of Canadians would say "tonne") of talent, and they're taking some time to figure it out- well except their top line, which has been on fire. Juniors Corban Knight and Danny Kristo with sophomore Brock Nelson (of Warroad. Thanks Brock) have combined for 12 of the team's 22 goals, with each guy scoring four apiece. But after that the Sioux have struggled to score, although they don't lack talent. Like Minnesota they have plenty of young draftees who are being given the opportunity to produce, but unlike Minnesota, we haven't seen it yet. A big little (or little big. whichever) part of that is 5'6 freshman Rocco Grimaldi, a US Hockey development program graduate who was the pre-season newcomer of the year. He's been banged up and only appeared in 3 games and registered just one assist, but if he's close to healthy he is absolutely electric, and would solve their secondary scoring woes in a hurry.
Defensively is where they're hurting the most right now, as they're trying to replace some workhorses who graduated. In net, last year's first team all-WCHA goalie Aaron Dell is looking a wee bit more mortal now that he actually has to stop some shots, and has been splitting time with Brad Eidsness.
North Dakota hasn't looked great so far, but there's talent in Grand Forks-as there always is- and you know this is just the opportunity they're looking for to turn things around. For a change, at least in recent years, it's the Gophers who will be favored this weekend, and it's a showcase for both schools. Yes UND is down right now, but a sweep of the Sue would be another big statement for the Gophs that this team is for real. If they get swept, a lot of that fun energy and hope from the first month goes away in a hurry, as Minnesota follows up this weekend with Wisconsin, St Cloud, and a roadie to Michigan State. A hard fought split...well, that's about what we expect anytime these two teams meet.
So it's a BIG weekend series. The Gophers, at least so far, look better in about every aspect. Their top line of Bjugstad-Rau-Budish matches UND's (Minnesota's trio have combined for 20 of the team's 43 goals), yet the Gophers right now have a second and third line that are really clicking too. Their young and inexperienced D have played well, and the Gophers special teams have been the best in the WCHA through four weeks. Goalie Kent Patterson? Unlike Dell, he's been just as amazing as last year.
Again, from what we've seen so far, Minnesota is a better team, but if the Gophers don't come out and play as well and as hard as they have so far this season, UND will take advantage. I'm sure Sioux coach Dave Hakstol is relishing a rare opportunity as an underdog, and will have ZERO problems motivating his players. This isn't exactly life or death for UND, but considering they only have 2 points in four conference games, and they still have teams like #3 CC and an always tricky trip to UAA coming before Christmas, the difficulty level of having a typical Sioux season increases dramatically if they don't at least split this weekend.
There's always a lot on the line when the Gophers and Sioux play, but this weekend seems to bring added importance for a regular season match-up. Gopher football beat rival Iowa (again) last weekend, and we'll see if Gopher hockey can match them by beating rival North Dakota this weekend. If you don't already have tickets to the standing room-only series, tonight's game is 7pm on FSN and tomorrow night is 7:30 on BTN.