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Pair of Dakotans returns home

North Dakotans Danny Irmen and Ryan Potulny will play in Grand Forks, N.D.

Growing up in Fargo, N.D., Danny Irmen got a firsthand look at just how big the Minnesota-North Dakota men’s hockey rivalry is, and he dreamt he one day would be a part of it.

It’s hard to imagine Irmen had any idea how big a part he’d come to play in the rivalry later in his life, no less as a member of the Gophers.

Irmen and fellow junior forward Ryan Potulny – a native of Grand Forks, N.D., where the University of North Dakota is located – have quickly become key figures in the storied history between the schools. They’ve done it through strong performances against the Sioux, in particular their showings at Ralph Engelstad Arena, site of this weekend’s NCAA West Regional, where Minnesota will play.

In just six career games at the arena, Irmen and Potulny have combined for 10 goals and seven assists (17 points).

“That’s fun to be able to go home and play in front of family and friends,” Potulny said. “And we’ve done pretty well there.”

Both players said a raised excitement level is a factor in their elevated performances at the North Dakota arena.

They also credited the famously brutal Sioux fans, who they said always are up for letting them know just how unhappy they are to see the home-state boys return wearing maroon and gold.

It gets especially bad, they said, if one of the two ends up in the penalty box because the fans can, and do, lean over the glass. And when it comes to Irmen and Potulny, nothing is off limits.

“It gets pretty ruthless in there,” Irmen said. “Talking about friends, family – it gets pretty bad in there. So I’m going to try and stay out of the penalty box as much as I can this weekend.”

While Irmen might be trying to stay out of the penalty box, he and Potulny said they don’t mind if the Sioux fans – who probably will be in abundance for Minnesota’s Friday game with Holy Cross, just to root against the Gophers – let them know what they really think of them. In fact, they seem to revel in it.

“Telling me that I’m not doing something right,” Irmen said, “as the Sioux fans do Ö it definitely gives you an extra edge to go out there and play harder.”

It was this extra edge that drove Irmen to do his already-infamous M jersey pull, directed at the Sioux’s student section, after scoring on a breakaway during the series at Engelstad in December. Irmen said the celebration, probably one of the biggest reasons he’s become a key figure in the rivalry, wasn’t planned and he didn’t say whether he had anything up his sleeve for this weekend.

That might be true, but Potulny did say, as a native of Grand Forks, that he’s putting a bit of added pressure, on himself this weekend.

“Not just going back home,” Potulny said, “but this time of the season I think is when your leaders need to step up and your big-time players need to play like big-time players and lead the way. So, there’s a little bit of added pressure, but not in a negative way, I don’t think.”

Irmen and Potulny have been big-time players all season, Potulny especially.

The Hobey Baker front-runner leads the nation in goals (38) and points (63) and is tied for the lead in power-play goals (17). Irmen, despite missing 11 games with injuries, is third on the team in scoring, with 16 goals and 22 assists (38 points).

Performances like these have led to speculation that the two will leave Minnesota early to pursue a dream even bigger than being in the Gophers-Sioux rivalry: playing in the National Hockey League. If that were to happen, it would make the fourth time they played at Engelstad arena the last.

Potulny, whose rights are owned by the Philadelphia Flyers, said he’s not going to think about his decision until the season ends. Irmen, meanwhile, a Minnesota Wild draftee, was a bit more concrete.

“Right now I plan on being in the maroon and gold next year,” Irmen said. “So there’s no reason I won’t be up at North Dakota next year.”

But next year is a million miles away in the minds of the players. For now Irmen and Potulny still have this weekend, and that makes their coach very happy.

“Those two are our leaders and they’ll be extra excited going back to play up in Grand Forks,” said coach Don Lucia. “And when your top players are excited, everything else usually falls into place.”

Gophers live on TV

Fox Sports Net North announced Wednesday that if Minnesota defeats Holy Cross to advance to the regional final, the game will be shown live at 8 p.m. Saturday.

A Minnesota Wild game, originally scheduled to be aired on the channel during the time the regional final game will be played, would be shown on tape delay after the Gophers game should the Gophers win Friday. If Minnesota is not in the regional final, the Wild game will be shown live.

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