Gophers get huge test as 6-0 Sioux come to Mariucci

Michael Rand

The Gophers hockey team has faced North Dakota 241 times, dating back to the inaugural game between the teams on Jan. 21, 1930.
Minnesota won that game, 6-1, giving birth to one of the oldest and fiercest rivalries in college hockey.
In the 76-plus years that separate that game from Friday night’s face-off, the teams have done little to promote good cheer and mirth. The names on their jerseys change, but the feelings remain the same.
Hate is probably too strong a word.
But dislike is too weak.
In recent years, Minnesota has been the strongest overall of the two teams.
The Gophers compiled a 71-39-18 record in regular-season WCHA games over the past four seasons. Those seasons, just like every other one under Coach Doug Woog, culminated in an NCAA tournament appearance.
UND, in contrast, went just 52-67-9 during the same span and never made a national tournament appearance.
But the rivalry helps explain why the teams have played to a virtual stalemate the past four seasons. Minnesota has won seven times, North Dakota five. They have tied four times.
There are two particular weekends during that stretch which stick out in the minds of Minnesota players: Last year at North Dakota when the Sioux swept the Gophers and ended their 19-game unbeaten streak, and two years ago when the Gophers came to North Dakota 6-0 and left with a tie and a loss.
History — from 70 years ago and from last year — will be showcased this weekend at Mariucci Arena when the Gophers host the Sioux.
But the recent history will have a new wrinkle.
This year, UND is off to a 6-0 start while the Gophers sit at 3-3. As if the incentives of the rivalry won’t be enough to bring emotions to a boil, the Sioux have a perfect record to protect and the Gophers have revenge on the agenda.
“We owe these guys,” said Gophers sophomore Mike Anderson. “It’s time for them to get knocked off.”
The Sioux are looking to maintain their gaudy lead and gain respect from teams in the league.
“People around the league have been saying we’ve had an easy schedule,” UND center Jason Blake said. “This is a big weekend for us.”
UND started the season by sweeping Michigan Tech, Denver and Northern Michigan — a schedule that isn’t the strongest, but cannot be considered soft. They sit atop the WCHA, six points ahead of a four-team logjam which includes Minnesota.
The Gophers could narrow the gap between themselves and UND to two points with a sweep. Or they could see the deficit grow to double digits if they dropped two games.
For that reason, the Gophers are focusing more on league standings than rivalry or revenge.
“It’s so early in the year, but we’re already looking at a key series,” said Gophers defenseman Jason Godbout. “If we don’t do what we need to do this weekend, we could be looking up at them all year.”
Gophers co-captain Mike Crowley added, “We couldn’t ask for a better opportunity. There’s no better way to get back near the top than to play the team in first place.”
Still, one thing is obvious: the rivalry will play an important role in the outcome of the games. Perhaps this is most evident from the teams’ plan of attack.
“It’s huge for us to come out on Friday and create the tempo,” Minnesota’s Anderson said.
“The first shift Friday night is the key,” UND’s Blake said.
A good start can seal an emotional victory. Conversely, an emotional loss can seal a team’s fate.