Duluth evokes twice the incentive

The Bulldogs ended Minnesota’s chance for a three-peat last season at NCAAs.

Ben Goessling

With everything that’s happened to Minnesota’s men’s hockey team the last three weeks, it’s pretty easy to forget that the motivation for this weekend’s series with Minnesota-Duluth traces its roots back almost 10 months.

Yes, the Gophers were swept at home twice in a row for the first time in 28 years. And granted, their contender status in the WCHA is slipping away in favor of a heated battle for home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

But beyond all that, there is the simple fact that Minnesota is jumping at the chance to reverse the embarrassment inflicted by its in-state rival last year.

Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth play at 7:07 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Mariucci Arena.

The Gophers played the Bulldogs six times last season, and the Bulldogs won five, including a 3-1 victory in the NCAA Midwest Regional final that sent them to their first Frozen Four since 1985 and ended the Gophers’ dream of three straight NCAA championships.

Minnesota-Duluth’s dominance stung Minnesota even more because it’s supposed to be the Gophers, with a recruiting pipeline and an extensive television package that are the envy of the WCHA, who are bringing home the titles.

So when the Bulldogs come to Mariucci this weekend for the teams’ only two meetings of the year, the series will mean a lot more than the three points separating the two squads in the conference standings.

It’s also about plain, old-fashioned revenge.

“It was pretty embarrassing last year. They had a great team,” forward Andy Sertich said. “But these two games are huge. If we sweep, we’ll pretty much be ahead of them for the rest of the year.”

In some ways, Minnesota-Duluth might be just the thing Minnesota needs to move on from a shocking sweep at the hands of Michigan Tech.

“Things can only go up. We’ve been waiting for this weekend for a while,” captain Judd Stevens said. “It’s huge for us.”

A month ago, it didn’t look that way.

The Bulldogs, who were picked to win the WCHA in the Grand Forks Herald’s preseason poll, never really got over the loss of 2004 Hobey Baker Award winner Junior Lessard and dropped six of their first seven conference games.

The Gophers, meanwhile, played well above expectations and entered the holiday break having won 13 of their last 15 and earning the No. 1 ranking in the country.

But while Minnesota (18-9-0, 11-7-0 WCHA) swooned for most of this month, Minnesota-Duluth (10-11-5, 8-9-3) took three points at top-ranked Colorado College last weekend and is suddenly back in the hunt for home ice.

“We seem to be playing teams at hot times, and Duluth has found their strength,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “We’re getting to the point of the season where these games will determine how we finish.”

Not that Minnesota needs much inspiration this week.

“I don’t know what happened, but we’ve got to get back on track,” forward Jake Fleming said. “A lot of guys want revenge.”

Briggs to start today

Lucia said goaltender Kellen Briggs will be in net tonight and added the Gophers will determine Saturday’s starter after the first game.