Not atop WCHA, but rivalry still exists

The Sioux and Gophers were ranked preseason conference Nos. 1 and 2.

Brian Deutsch

If college football has taught us anything this year, it’s that rankings don’t really matter.

MEN’S HOCKEY PREVIEW

Where: Engelstad Arena, Grand Forks, N.D.
When: 7:37 p.m. Friday and 7:07 p.m. Sat.
TV: Fox Sports Net North
Radio: KTNF 950 AM/KUOM 100.7 FM and 106.5 FM

Minnesota leads the all-time series 136-120-11

Minnesota men’s hockey coach Don Lucia has applied the same lesson to this weekend’s series with North Dakota – which will be a showdown between the conference’s preseason No. 1 Sioux and No. 2 Gophers.

“What people think (a team) is supposed to be isn’t necessarily a reality, you have to go out and prove it,” Lucia said. “Right now, we’ve proven to be a .500 team.”

After a series of early sweeps and splits, the Gophers have found themselves in the middle of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association standings – tied for sixth with Wisconsin.

“I think there are a lot of people that are surprised with where we are at,” senior defenseman Derek Peltier said. “For our team, we’ve just been inconsistent, up and down all year, and we haven’t been able to put a full weekend together.”

Meanwhile, the Sioux haven’t done much better – the team is only one spot above Minnesota at fifth.

But even with both teams struggling, Gophers players seemed to have an extra helping of enthusiasm this week in practice as they prepared for the weekend.

“It’s a huge rivalry game; they have a great team,” Peltier said. “It’s always a war playing them. It’s always physical, and we have to be up to the challenge.”

Minnesota

(8-7-1 overall, 4-6-0 WCHA) National Ranking: 15

Minnesota Stat
Lamoureux might be receiving jeers from Gophers fans for the rest of the season, but after that Minnesota fans will be cheering when that name is announced. UND’s senior goalie has a pair of twin sisters (Jocelyne and Monique) who recently signed letters of intent to play for the Gophers next season.

PLAYERS TO WATCH
Junior forward Blake Wheeler: Nobody should be surprised to see Wheeler listed as an impact player for this weekend. He is tied for the team lead with six goals this year and his game-winner last year in the WCHA Championship begs for a sequel.
Senior Forward Mike Howe: Last weekend, Howe had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. He scored a pair of goals in Saturday’s 3-1 win that prevented a sweep by Michigan Tech.

North Dakota

(5-6-1 overall, 4-5-1 WCHA) National Ranking: 20

North Dakota Stat
The preseason No.1 in the national polls has been struggling to create a foothold in its own conference. The Sioux have split each of its five WCHA series this year. However, the team split with Denver and Colorado College – both of whom swept Minnesota earlier this year.

PLAYERS TO WATCH
Tandem of junior forwards T.J. Oshie and Ryan Duncan: Last year, the Sioux’s top line was one of the most potent in hockey culminating with Duncan winning the Hobey Baker Award.
This year, the team has struggled to find a replacement for departed line-mate Jonathon Toews and has been outshined by St. Cloud State’s duo of Ryan Lasch and Garrett Roe.
Senior netminder Jean-Phillipe Lamoureux: The Gophers have faced a lot of hot goalies this year, and they’ll get another one this weekend. Lamoureux leads the nation with four shutouts in 13 games.
His 1.52 goals against average is the best in the WCHA and the fourth best in the country while his .940 save percentage is the nation’s fifth best.

And Minnesota might have something to prove to this weekend’s opponents, although junior forward Blake Wheeler thinks there is a better target.

“I think we have a lot more to prove to ourselves than we have to anyone else,” Wheeler said. “Going up (to North Dakota), it’s a hostile environment. We’ll be able to tell a lot about our team and what we have inside of us just based on how we perform up there because it’s men only.”

Last year, the two teams met twice in the postseason – once in the WCHA Final Five Championship and again in the NCAA West Regionals.

In the conference title game, Wheeler scored an amazing overtime goal to give Minnesota a 3-2 victory.

But the Sioux got the last word, taking the NCAA tournament game with a 3-2 overtime game of its own.

If the past two games are any indication of what to expect this weekend, then hockey fans should be in for a treat.

“It’s going to be a tough weekend. Every time we play North Dakota, it’s a battle,” sophomore forward Ryan Flynn said. “It’s going to be some championship-style hockey games up there this weekend.”

The poll position

The preseason poll mentioned in the article is comprised of votes by the 10 WCHA coaches.

So who did Lucia vote for in that poll?

Earlier this week, the Gophers coach said he picked the Sioux ahead of Minnesota.