Depending on your point of view, the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs either caught the Golden Gophers of Minnesota either at exactly the right time of year (both at the beginning and and the end of a stretch of poor hockey), or they were the cause of a long stretch of poor hockey. I guess the two aren't mutually exclusive.
You've probably heard by now that this is the fifth time these two teams will meet this season, and this is the fifth venue to host one of those contests. Each of the four games played so far had a feel as dissimilar from the others as the each venue to another.
In the first game of the season for both squads, the Gophers downed the Bulldogs 4-3 in the IceBreaker tournament in Southbend. In the first two periods, Minnesota was very opportunistic and scored four goals on just 12 shots. While the Bulldogs seemed to control the puck better, they were faced with a three goal deficit going into the third. The third period was probably Minnesota's best of the game, but Duluth scored two early goals to narrow the lead to one. Minnesota held on for the victory.
The second game took place at Mariucci. The Bulldogs dominated the Gophers on their home ice, allowing Minnesota only 17 shots on goal for the game. The Gophers had only four shots on goal in the third period. They attempted only 31 in the whole game. Duluth attempted 68, and put 38 on Adam Wilcox. This was total domination by Bulldogs.
Depending on your point of view, this game either caused the Gophers two month skid or just happened to be the start of it. The point is probably moot.
The next night was a better effort with a another disappointing result. Leon Bristedt scored the Minnesota's first goal of the series with just under nine minutes remaining in the weekend. Despite the poor score line, the Gophers actually played much better in this game; they just couldn't solve Kasimir Kaskisuo, and the Bulldogs held on for a 2-1 win at home in Duluth.
The teams wouldn't meet again until the third place game in the North Star College Cup in January. I watched this game from the fantastic press box at the Xcel Energy Center, with a seat right in front of the radio booths. It was an extraordinarily frustrating game to watch, as Minnesota did their best to emulate Penn State's offense, but without the grit. They seemed completely unwilling to take the puck to the net and settled for shots from the outside. It inspired me to write this article during the course of the game.
My frustration was matched by the angel standing on my shoulder, screaming his dissatisfaction into my ear. It was hard to disagree with him. If you were listening to the radio broadcast, you know who I heard screaming the entire game: Pat Micheletti.
So now the Gophers and Bulldogs will battle once again, but don't expect the same type of game as the last three. Minnesota finally realized what they need to do to win hockey games. They've finally looked like a team playing to win, rather than just playing to get to the post season. The goal the seniors returned to accomplish is finally at their fingertips. They've been playing their best hockey of the year right when they needed to do it.
On the other hand, Duluth has looked like a completely common team lately. Their early season success and the relative strength of the NCHC against other conferences lifted them to a number two seed in the regional, despite winning only two of their last nine games. Over that stretch, and during a bad couple of weeks in January, their offense dried up. They're averaging two goals per game recently.
In that regard, they were played into a terribly difficult regional. Minnesota seems to have figured out how to fix its own defensive troubles, and the regional features three excellent goaltenders in Wilcox, Boston University's Matt O'Connor, and Yale's Alex Lyon. Duluth has a tough road to hoe.
What this game will come down to is what's actually real.
Is Minnesota's recent hot streak just a product of playing a weak Big Ten Conference? Have they really learned to play at the level everyone expected?
Is Duluth's recent lack of success an aberration because they played by far the toughest schedule in the nation?
Well. I guess we'll find out.
Under a microscope, the game will be decided by the goaltenders. For whatever reason, Kaskisuo has been a brick wall against the Gophers in their last two meetings (Matt McNeely played in goal during the NSCC). Adam Wilcox has been a brick wall recently as well, down the stretch run in the regular season, against a very feisty Ohio State team in the conference tournament, and against the the second most potent offense in the country in the Big Ten Championship.
As Wilcox goes, so go the Gophers.