Gophers battle in-state rival in Duluth

Minnesota is 1-4-1 in its last six games at Duluth and hasn’t won there since Feb. 21, 2003.

Minnesota’s men’s hockey team might have a chip on their shoulder when it faces in-state rival University of Minnesota-Duluth this weekend.

The second-ranked Gophers have struggled to play well while visiting the hostile environment at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center in recent seasons.

“We haven’t played well up there the past couple years,” junior defenseman Alex Goligoski said. “It’s a tough place to play. It’s a small building and it gets really loud in there – they have a lot of chants that they throw out.”

Goligoski said that while sweeping opponents at home and splitting on the road normally ensures a successful conference season, winning a pair of games from a tough opponent like Duluth gives a team an even bigger boost.

Minnesota, despite its all-time dominance of the Bulldogs with a 122-66-11 record, is 1-4-1 in its last six games at the DECC and has not won there since Feb. 21, 2003.

“The fans are right on top of you – it’s a great home-ice advantage,” coach Don Lucia said. “It’s a challenge for us to stay together, to play together and to see where we’re at as a team.”

But if the Gophers ever had momentum going into a weekend, this would be it.

Accompanying Minnesota’s overall six-game winning streak is a 14-game road unbeaten streak dating back to last season. The Gophers last loss on the road was Nov. 5, 2005, to those feisty Bulldogs.

Adding to the rarity of such dominance over Minnesota, the Gophers lost just two games on the road last year: the first in St. Cloud and the second in Duluth.

Considering Minnesota faced second-ranked, eventual national champion Wisconsin and fourth-ranked North Dakota on the road, sweeping them both last season, its struggles in Duluth carry even more weight.

Goligoski said the team as a whole has confidence in the way it’s playing right now and, if it sticks to the solid defensive play this weekend, he looks for more success.

“I think if we overcome the crowd and play solid defensively it will be a pretty good weekend,” he said.

Goligoski said the older players have talked with their younger teammates who have not worn a Gophers uniform in Duluth before.

Freshman defenseman Erik Johnson, who will be playing his first game at the DECC as a Minnesota player, said he knows the recent woes the Gophers have seen on the road against the Bulldogs.

“Last year I think this team didn’t do very well up there, so I think there will be some revenge in the room,” Johnson said.

Johnson said that Minnesota has played solid team hockey thus far and if players continue to find contributions on the power play while being tough in the defensive zone, this weekend shouldn’t see a drop off in productivity.

“I think playing good team defense and not allowing shots on goal (will help the team),” he said.

Lucia said while it’s important to play well for momentum’s purposes, early season matchups rarely play a pivotal role in the grand scheme of the season.

“We know how difficult it can be – last year we got a point up there and two years ago we got swept up there,” Lucia said. “I always say there’s no big games in the first half of the year. We just want to go up there and get better in some areas.”