Gophers want one more shot at North Dakota

by Michael Rand

A smile crept across Wyatt Smith’s face at the mere mention of a possible rematch between the Gophers hockey team and North Dakota.
Minnesota’s emotionally draining 4-3 loss Saturday to the Sioux in the WCHA Final Five championship game had only been finished for 30 minutes. But Smith, a sophomore from Warroad, was already itching for a chance to do it all over again — except with a different outcome, of course.
A reporter mentioned this scenario to Smith: North Dakota, by virtue of its win over the Gophers, would be the No. 2 seed in the NCAA West Regional. Minnesota had a very good chance to be the No. 3 seed in the west. Assuming the Gophers beat the region’s No. 6 seed in the first round, the Gophers and Sioux would meet again one week later in Grand Rapids, Mich.
“Really?” Smith said, growing excited. “I hope so. I’d love it. I’m sure every one of our guys would love to play them again. If we don’t end up playing them again, it’s going to be a long summer,” Smith said.
The NCAA selection committee didn’t grant Smith’s wish when it set up the tournament brackets on Sunday. North Dakota is the No. 2 seed, but the Gophers dropped to the No. 4 seed. If the teams are to play each other again, it won’t be until the Final Four.
Smith and teammate Ryan Kraft of Moorhead, Minn., know the rivalry between Minnesota and North Dakota very well. They both grew up in towns divided in allegiance to the schools.
While other Gophers players gear up for St. Cloud State, Minnesota-Duluth or Wisconsin, Smith and Kraft pay special attention to games against North Dakota.
Saturday’s game was no exception. Check that, maybe it was an exception in that the two players were geared up even more this time around than they normally are.
The Gophers and Sioux split their season series and were co-champions of the WCHA. The last memory Minnesota had of North Dakota before Saturday was a pair of losses six weeks ago.
“Those left a bad taste in our mouths on the flight back to Minneapolis,” Kraft said.
When they met in the title game of the league playoffs, it was each team’s chance to end the gridlock over who rules the WCHA.
When UND’s Peter Armbrust scored just 2:17 into overtime, he set off a chain reaction of emotions.
“We kind of showed that we are the champions,” North Dakota defenseman Curtis Murphy said.
Gophers players, meanwhile, could only stand completely motionless as UND players skated around the ice waving a school flag and carrying the playoff champions’ Broadmoor Trophy.
Smith tried to keep things upbeat after the game. He knew the Gophers would likely have to play one more game in the NCAA tournament to get to the Final Four because UND earned the bye with Saturday’s win. He said the team will simply have to focus a little harder.
Time after time, however, he kept returning to the rivalry. A snapshot of his potential game-winning shot that went wide in the game’s final two minutes is firmly planted in his head.
“I was in too tight, and I got a little too excited,” he said. “I’ll be having nightmares for at least a week.”
What was even more damaging to Smith personally was that the Gophers had the dream matchup — his dream matchup — in the biggest game of the year, and they came up short.
“Krafty and I sat down before the game, and we were talking about playing North Dakota for the championship. It’s the kind of thing you dream about when you’re little, skating out on the pond,” Smith said.
“But I never lost one of these out on the pond.”