Minnesota hosts rival North Dakota

Minnesota is 7-1-0 and in first place in the WCHA.

by Dane Mizutani

There was an increased sense of intensity that resonated throughout Mariucci Arena on Wednesday.

With a series against rival North Dakota on the horizon, the GophersâÄô focus and preparedness in practice was unmistakable.

âÄúGetting ready for North Dakota âÄî I canâÄôt even put it into words,âÄù senior captain Taylor Matson said. âÄúIt comes down to just heart and will during these games.

âÄúNorth Dakota-Minnesota is something special and itâÄôs going to be fun with the atmosphere around here.âÄù

Goalie Kent Patterson said he looks forward to this matchup every season.

âÄúItâÄôs one of those games you mark on your calendar every single year,âÄù Patterson said. âÄúNot only are we excited for it, but fans across Minnesota and North Dakota âÄî everybody gets up for this weekend, and itâÄôs going to be a fun environment.âÄù

No. 5 Minnesota (7-1-0, 4-0-0 WCHA) will host the historic rivalry against the Fighting Sioux this weekend for the first time since Jan. 15-16, 2010.

The Gophers enter the series fresh off their best start since the 2001-02 season, when they started 11-0-2.

They also rank atop the WCHA with eight points this season, all coming on the road.

Forward Nick Bjugstad said the team cannot be satisfied with this fast start, though.

âÄúI think definitely we canâÄôt get too far ahead of ourselves,âÄù Bjugstad said. âÄúWeâÄôve won some games, but itâÄôs still early in the season and every team we play is good.âÄù

No. 15 North Dakota (3-4-1, 1-3-0 WCHA) has stumbled out of the gates this season.

The defending MacNaughton Cup and Broadmoor Trophy champion is tied for ninth in the WCHA after being swept by Wisconsin on Oct. 21-22 and splitting a series with St. Cloud State last weekend.

The slow start wonâÄôt stymie their attack on both sides of the puck this weekend, according to head coach Don Lucia.

âÄúI donâÄôt care if North Dakota is going to be playing Minnesota or whoever âÄî youâÄôre going to get their best effort each and every game,âÄù Lucia said.

Generally, series against the Fighting Sioux are more physical, which could trouble a Minnesota squad that has been prone to committing penalties at times.

In their only loss of the season to Vermont, the Gophers were plagued by undisciplined penalties that kept them on the penalty kill a majority of the game.

âÄúWhenever you play North Dakota, theyâÄôre physical,âÄù forward Zach Budish said. âÄúWeâÄôve got to be ready to match their intensity in the corners and in front of the net, but if they take penalties, we donâÄôt need to retaliate.

âÄúWeâÄôve got to utilize our power play âÄî itâÄôs been one of our biggest strengths.âÄù

The Gophers are a nation-best 14-for-39 with the man advantage on the season, amassing a 35.9 percent success rate.

Minnesota will look to exploit North DakotaâÄôs penalty kill, which has allowed seven power play goals this season.

Minnesota also possesses the No. 1 offense in the nation, scoring at a clip of 5.38 goals per game.

Regardless of this seasonâÄôs statistics, Lucia said he wants his team to focus on the most important stat this weekend âÄî WCHA points.

âÄúItâÄôs just a battle for points this weekend,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúIt doesnâÄôt matter who you play, you better be ready to play to give yourself a chance to win.

âÄúI think our guys have shown up to work and given a good effort each and every game, and theyâÄôve given themselves a chance to win and thatâÄôs why weâÄôre 7-1-0.âÄù

Matson said overall records, statistics and national rankings will not matter in this series. He even went as far as to draw an unusual comparison for the pair of hockey games:

âÄúItâÄôs going to be a bloodbath out there, and weâÄôre just looking forward to it,âÄù Matson said. âÄúItâÄôs just something when youâÄôre skating around in warm-ups and youâÄôre looking over at them and theyâÄôve got the green âÄî weâÄôre just out to kill this year.âÄù