Damn you, Jim Delaney.
Or maybe we blame gazillionaire Terry Pegulia for donating $88 million to Penn State so they could start a hockey program, giving the Big Ten the minimum of six teams to start a conference, pulling Minnesota away from the WCHA. While Saturday night's game was a showcase of phenomenal hockey between two bitter rivals in what was nothing short of a playoff atmosphere and intensity, it was also a reminder of what will never be again. The Big Ten hockey conference begins next year, and it means the end of the best rivalry in college hockey, and the opportunity for the Gophers to share a conference with many top schools, but especially the bitterest of rivals in North Dakota. Minnesota and their fans hate UND, UND hates us more, and that kind of passion leads to the incredible game we saw Saturday night, and for parts of Friday night too. The Gophers won 5-1 Friday night, roared back in the third for a 4-4 tie tonight and somehow came out of the weekend with three huge points, good enough to move them into a first place tie with St Cloud for first in the WCHA.
UND scored the first goal in each game, and were insanely competitive until the end, but they have to feel disappointed with the outcome of the series, especially considering they let a 2 goal third period lead slip away. Whether the game is at Mariucci or The Ralph, there's always a frenzied atmosphere when these two meet, yet Friday night the buzz at Mariucci seemed to be at another level in anticipation of the last conference series between the Gophers and Whioux. Both clubs took most of the first period to skate and hit out the jitters before settling in, with the first period finishing scoreless yet still full of action. The Whioux's only goal of the night came first as Michael Parks knocked one in on the power play just over 3 minutes into the second, momentarily taking the wind out of the Mariucci's sails. Captain Zach Budish tied it minutes later, and Ben Marshall scored the eventual game winner on the power play with just six seconds left in the second for a 2-1 lead.
Nate Schmidt scored a huge goal early in the third for a two goal cushion, then both teams traded hits and scoring opportunities before Nate Condon scored a gorgeous "shorty" taking advantage of a stickless UND defenseman who broke his stick, dancing around him and slipping the puck past Whioux goalie Clarke Saunders for a 4-1 lead with under 5 to go. UND coach Dave Hasktol pulled the goalie and despite some furious efforts, Erik Haula, in his first game back since breaking his finger (or more accurately, after having his finger broken against BC by an errant slash) potted the empty netter to seal it. UND being UND got chippy and cheap and dirty in the waning minutes but despite their goonish behavior there were no injuries and the teams headed off, preparing for a dandy of a game Saturday night.
Saturday was Hockey Day in Minnesota and the two teams played like it the finals of the Final Five, the Frozen Four and the last time these two may ever meet in conference play in the regular season all rolled into one. Minnesota outplayed UND in the first, outshooting them 13-5 but were only able to beat new freshman goalie Zane Gothberg once on a Jake Parenteau goal from in close. UND's insanely fast Danny Kristo opened the scoring minutes earlier on a ridiculous goal where he somehow batted a rebound out of mid-air while being pushed back by a Gopher defender. Minnesota continued its strong play early in the second, but after UND killed off three Gopher power play chances, they seized momentum thanks to a UM turnover that led to an odd man rush and Corban Knight buried the opportunity with his 11th of the year. Moments later another Gopher turnover led to a 2-on-1 for UND and this time it was Rocco Grimaldi flying down the right wing, waiting for the defender to commit, then buried a shot top shelf past Adam Wilcox for a 3-1 lead. Sam Warning stopped the proverbial bleeding about a minute later with his fifth of the year, and the Gophers seemed to regain their swagger by period's end down 3-2.
The third period was simply nuts. I know the cliche gets thrown around a lot, but it really did look and feel like playoff hockey as both teams were flying up and down the ice, loading up on hits and chances galore. "Fire wagon hockey" as Gopher play-by-play man Doug McLeod called it. The Whioux got a huge goal from Drake Caggula midway through the third to give UND a 4-2 lead, and it was about that time Gopher fans got pretty nervous, and I was sitting there thinking "well, we had hoped for a sweep but everybody knew they'd split this series." But the Gophers wouldn't quit and there was Nick Bjugstad banging home a loose puck at the side of the net cut it to a one goal deficit with just nine minutes left. Minnesota kept coming, and it seemed only fitting that Nate Condon, who had five points on the weekend, netted the game-tying goal with just three minutes to go. Both teams had chances to win it in regulation and OT (there were a couple of times that UND got too close, to the point I stood up and yelled at the TV "GET THAT F***ING PUCK OUT OF THERE!?!?!?"), but we ended tied at four, and perhaps that was fitting.
In an incredibly tight WCHA race, these three points are huge for Minnesota, putting them in a tie with St Cloud for first, who themselves had a monster weekend by sweeping Denver. UND is down but far from out, as even with just a one point weekend still find themselves tied for third and just two points back of the Gophers and Huskies for first. Condon would get player of the weekend with his five points, and Adam Wilcox was huge again for Minnesota. Erik Haula returned, and while having him on the top line didn't result in huge production point-wise, you can tell he, Bjugstad and Rau have some chemistry, and if Don Lucia keeps those three together in the coming weeks its going to pay dividends.
For UND, their dangerous forwards were held in check for the most part Friday night but you could see how lethal their top three guys of Knight, Kristo and Grimaldi can be as each scored goal-scorer goals. They might also have a bit of a goaltending controversy going as the youngster Gothberg was very good for the most part tonight.
And so the last ever WCHA regular season series between Minnesota and North Dakota comes to an end. Nobody wins when a rivalry like this has to go away, but at least the fans got a helluva show in the last series. And if we're lucky, maybe these two meet again in the Final Five, and down the road again in the NCAA's.