New digs, same surly crowd in Duluth

Amsoil Arena opened on Dec. 30, not long after Minnesota took three points from its in-state rivals. The Bulldogs are out for payback.

John Hageman

Patrick White went to high school a little more than 84 miles away from the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, even playing several high school tournaments there. HeâÄôs familiar with the BulldogsâÄô former home and their fans.

One can imagine that the senior forward from Grand Rapids, Minn. hears it from the Duluth crowd when he visits wearing the maroon and gold of another squad.

Minnesota head coach Don Lucia recalled that when Duluth native and former Gophers forward Dave Spehar would visit the DECC, Bulldogs fans would throw hot dogs onto the ice.

But Duluth fans donâÄôt reserve their distaste exclusively for hometown players turned Gophers. Complete with a bright-pink visitorsâÄô locker room, the DECC was a haven for the anti-Gophers crowd.

Even the scoreboard read âÄúUMTCâÄú instead of âÄúMinnesota,âÄù seemingly as a refusal to recognize the Gophers as the hockey team of Minnesota but merely representing another branch of the state of hockey.

But after playing 45 years at the DECC, the Bulldogs opened their $80 million, 6,600 seat Amsoil Arena on Dec. 30 with a 5-0 loss to North Dakota. The Gophers (11-10-3, 8-8-2 WCHA) will be making their first visit this weekend.

The setting may have changed, but the atmosphere wonâÄôt.

Add the inherent animosity to the way the last meeting between the two teams went âÄîMinnesota took 3 out of 4 points from the then-No. 2 Bulldogs in early December âÄî and it makes for a classic in-state rivalry series.

âÄúIâÄôm sure theyâÄôre going to be really pissed off,âÄù Jacob Cepis said. âÄúThey came in here hot, and we kind of put them down.âÄù

At the time, the Gophers had just been swept by Mankato, and Minnesota-Duluth had won six of seven. But the Gophers went into their holiday break on a high note a week after hitting rock bottom.

Much of that can be attributed to goaltender Kent Patterson, who allowed a combined four goals and tallied 78 saves on the weekend. It was a kind of coming-out party for Patterson, who has since taken up the mantle for injured Alex Kangas.

âÄúIt was definitely a confidence builder and something to take a lot of positive things away from,âÄù Patterson said. âÄúBut thatâÄôs the past.âÄù

Indeed, the Gophers have had an enigmatic month. Since that series, Minnesota went winless in the Mariucci Classic, showed another bright spot with a win in North Dakota but split with struggling Alaska-Anchorage last weekend.

The Gophers have shown they are capable of beating anyone on a given night, but not everyone.

Their success against quality teams followed by struggles against middle-of-the-pack teams has been somewhat of a theme this season. While they remain scrapping for sixth place in the WCHA, the Gophers are 3-2-1 against top-10 teams in the nation.

âÄúI think itâÄôs probably because we focus on the little things when weâÄôre playing them,âÄù White said. âÄúI think weâÄôve had few games this year against opponents that arenâÄôt as highly ranked [against whom] maybe we havenâÄôt done those things as well.âÄù

After scoring five goals Friday, Minnesota failed to adapt to the SeawolvesâÄô defensive adjustments and were shut out. The Gophers will have different worries this weekend.

With three players among the top 10 scorers in the league, the Bulldogs have proven to be dangerous offensively.

For the Gophers, the less-prolific strategy remains the same: Score three goals and give Patterson a chance to win the game. Minnesota has won just one game when scoring less than three goals this season.

To make that a reality, the GophersâÄô top scorers will need to improve after a weekend in which the first line failed to tally a point. Minnesota will need its veteran leadership in Duluth, an always-hostile location, no matter the arena.

âÄúI donâÄôt care if itâÄôs our top-end guys or [Alex] Ovechkin, youâÄôre going to go through stretches where youâÄôre not scoring,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúWe need those guys to show up on the score sheet this weekend and every weekend.âÄù