Gophers visit Grand Forks for WCHA tourney

This is the first time Minnesota has visited North Dakota for a playoff series since 1987.

Hockey vs. Wisconsin

Ian Larson

Hockey vs. Wisconsin

Max Sanders

Whenever the most-played rivalry in menâÄôs college hockey occurs, itâÄôs bound to be hard hitting and intense. North Dakota and Minnesota meet this weekend for the chance to play in St. Paul for the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Final Five. ItâÄôs the first time they are playing a WCHA playoff series in Grand Forks since 1987, and the Gophers menâÄôs hockey team knows whatâÄôs in store this weekend. âÄúItâÄôs going to be a no-holds-barred weekend,âÄù Minnesota winger Jacob Cepis said. âÄúItâÄôs a hate game, thatâÄôs what it is this weekend. ItâÄôs going to be who wants it more, thatâÄôs what it comes down to.âÄù Cepis missed the regular season opener in Grand Forks due to transfer rules, but has been told by teammates to expect a relentless and unforgiving crowd at Ralph Engelstad Arena. âÄúItâÄôs not fun up there, thatâÄôs for sure,âÄù Cepis said. âÄúItâÄôs not too nice of an environment; everyone hates you up there.âÄù Minnesota will be under significantly more pressure to take the weekend series, as they likely have to win the WCHA Final Five to advance to the NCAA Tournament, whereas the Sioux likely have an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament regardless of their finish in the WCHA Tournament. âÄúThis is it,âÄù goalie Alex Kangas said. âÄúWe feel like weâÄôve got to win out; weâÄôve got to lay it all on the line. We know itâÄôs going to be a war.âÄù The Gophers are facing a North Dakota team that has won seven straight contests and is one of the hottest teams in the nation. During that stretch, the Sioux have outscored opponents 32-11, not allowing more than two goals in any of those games. Minnesota head coach Don Lucia knows his team will have to take advantage of any scoring opportunities they get. âÄúItâÄôs not like weâÄôre going to go up there and get 35, 40 shots a night,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúWe might [only] get 25 to 30, and weâÄôve got to find a way to score some goals on those shots.âÄù Frequently a feast or famine type team on offense, the Gophers experienced the latter last Sunday on special teams, scoring five power play goals in the 6-1 win against Wisconsin. While that production is not expected this weekend, Lucia does expect a similar effort on special teams. âÄúWeâÄôve generated opportunities, and I think thatâÄôs the most important thing,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúYou start generating opportunities, and then you hope some of those are going to go in.âÄù The Gophers arenâÄôt riding a seven-game win streak, but they do head into the weekend playing some of their best hockey of the season as winners of four of their final six regular season games. âÄúI think we feel good the way weâÄôve been playing, whether home or on the road, as of late,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúThe big thing for us is generating offense. If we can generate some offense in the games this weekend, then we feel good about our chances.âÄù Lucia was hoping to receive extra help on offense last weekend from injured forward Taylor Matson, but the forwardâÄôs ankle injury had not healed enough to allow him to play in the series against Wisconsin. Lucia said a decision on MatsonâÄôs status likely wonâÄôt be made until Thursday, when the team boards the bus for Grand Forks. While the atmosphere at Engelstad Arena will undoubtedly be fierce, controlling emotions and keeping North Dakota from having multiple power play opportunities will be one of the foremost issues, Lucia said. âÄúYou get to this time of the year, discipline becomes very important because you donâÄôt want to give somebody opportunities on the power play,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúTheyâÄôre going to play hard. WeâÄôre going to have to match that intensity, especially on the road because their crowdâÄôs going to get into the game, and theyâÄôll feed off their crowd.âÄù FridayâÄôs game will be at 7:30 p.m., with SaturdayâÄôs game slated to start at 7:07 p.m. If a third game is necessary, it will be played Sunday at 7:07 p.m.