For the first time in nearly four years Minnesota and North Dakota will meet in a regular season hockey series. Its like those far flung relatives you haven’t seen in a few year, but still hate when they come to visit. You can try and forget about them when you don’t see them, but all the memories and feelings come back when they reenter your life. And their car just pulled up outside your front door.
Minnesota and North Dakota. Its one of hockey's more storied rivalries. Sure there have been down periods, but in the last 16 years especially, these two teams have matched up to create some of college hockey’s most memorable moments. You can remember most of them just by name. The 180 foot goal. The Wheeler Dive. The Final Five Collapse, Rau rolling the dice. Wehrs getting cheapshotted. Sad Lammy. The Handshake Line Incident. And oh yeah that little 0.6 moment.
In fact that 0.6 moment was the last time these two teams faced each other on the ice. Its been a long time since that night in Philly in April of 2014. In fact, only four seniors on the Gopher roster have ever played North Dakota. Not a single Fighting Hawk player has ever faced a member of the maroon and gold in college. Now that won’t happen again for quite a while as the two schools have made and updated several scheduling agreements that will see these teams face off at least once a year through 2023.
Unfortunately for the Gophers, many of those memorable college hockey moments have been being made on the west side of the Red River lately. North Dakota comes in as the defending NCAA Champion, and was the #1 ranked team in the nation until they were swept by UMD last weekend. They have a potential Hobey Baker candidate in sophomore Brock Boeser, who painfully, many thought would be a Gopher several years ago. North Dakota seems to be the cream of the college hockey crop, and the Gophers are fighting to get back to that level. This weekend could be a big step for the Gophers back to where they want to be. Or it could be a harsh reality check as to where they really are.
One major key to the series this weekend will be goaltending. Minnesota’s Eric Schierhorn is still trying to find consistency this season. he as looked great at times, but also goes through periods where he lets in several weak goals. If he has any of those moments this weekend, Minnesota will be in trouble going against a UND team that can score goals in bunches. On the other side, North Dakota’s Cam Johnson is a sophomore who is the current career leader in goals against average in Fighting Hawk history with a 1.84 mark. However, Johnson has been shakier of late, giving up an average of four goals per game in his last three.
Getting off to a fast start will also be key. North Dakota has only scored the first goal in one of their seven games this season. However, when they take a lead into the second intermission they don’t give it up going 4-0 so far. Minnesota has once again been inconsistent doing this in 2016, getting off to both fast starts and blowing late leads, and falling behind early and clawing back late. An even consistent game will be what is needed for Minnesota to try and pick up at least one win. Playing only one or two periods of a game will not get it done.
The Gophers will need to continue to keep showing off their offensive prowess this season. Minnesota is fifth in the nation in scoring averaging 4.17 goals per game. The Gophers have been spreading the scoring around as well. Tyler Sheehy leads the team with eight points on the season, and eight Gophers have at least five points. Minnesota will put out three lines out who can score, and their fourth line has had great looks this season as well. The key for Minnesota will be getting quality play from their defensive group. When things have gone poorly for Minnesota, it has been nearly directly due to major lapses by the defensive corps North Dakota will be able to exploit any issues Minnesota has. It easily could be the difference between a Gopher win, and a crushing loss.
Minnesota could really use at least a split this weekend. Its definitely possible assuming Minnesota can put together three consistent periods. Put together the first two periods of the St. Cloud series, and the third periods of the games out east last weekend and a sweep may even be in the cards. Its all within their ability to do so, it all comes down to that word I’ve used way too much in this article...consistency.
Just a quick reminder....if you are going to the game Saturday night, good luck. The Big Ten did no favors to hockey fans by making the Gopher/Purdue football game a 2:30 kickoff. Traffic will be a nightmare, so might as well make it a double and go watch both games on campus.
HOW TO WATCH:
#3 North Dakota Fighting Hawks vs #13 Minnesota Golden Gophers
Where: Mariucci Arena, Minneapolis, Minnesota
When: 7:00 Friday, 8:00 Saturday
TV: Fox Sports North
Live Stream: BTN2GO Fox Sports GO
Radio: 1500 ESPN