Gophers Stick Salute After A Home Sweep (photo courtesy of Gophers Athletics/Paul Rovnak)
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It's hard to believe how much has changed in two and half months.
The last time Minnesota (16-7-1, 11-3-0 WCHA) and North Dakota (11-8-2, 7-7-0 WCHA) met, November 4-5, the Gophers swept the Fighting Sioux to raise their record to 9-1-0 and were the number one team in the country. Since then they have gone 6-6-1, losing their last two games to Northeastern and Notre Dame, while North Dakota has gone 8-2-1 and rebounded from what seems to be an almost annual slow start.
With both teams teetering in different directions, it makes this weekend's series at Ralph Englestad Arena in Grand Forks that much bigger for the Gophers. They still are tied for the WCHA lead with Minnesota Duluth (UND is sixth, 8 points behind) but there is little margin for error.
Of course it's not like either Minnesota or North Dakota need much to be motivated against each other. Both teams hate hate hate each other (that's 3 hates) and it's one of the best rivalries in college hockey. It's not a UND series if at some point a mass fight doesn't break out or either team has more players in the box than on the ice.
Another change from the last time the two teams played is North Dakota's name, or lack of one. This is the first home series since UND retired the "Fighting Sioux" nickname after a long NCAA battle for the nickname-less team west of Minneapolis (that's sure to catch on, right?). It's sad, even for someone like me who grew up hating UND, but at least the team will continue to wear the logo on their jersey through the end of the season.
On the ice, North Dakota has played well recently despite being bit by the injury bug. Heralded freshman Rocco Grimaldi has been limited to four games this season while Corban Knight, Derek Forbort, Mario Lamoureax and Derek Rodwell have all missed games due to injuries. Forbort, who was injured playing for Team USA at the World Junior Championships, and Knight, who missed North Dakota's last 3 games, are both game-time decisions while Grimaldi will miss this weekend's series.
Two players to watch for UND are goalie Aaron Dell and forward Brock Nelson. Dell, who found his groove in the first Minnesota series, has continued to shine as the senior has one of the better blue lines in the WCHA in front of him. Nelson, a 2010 first round pick by the New York Islanders, is tied with Danny Kristo in points with 24 and has been the team's catalyst with 15 goals.
Minnesota, on the other hand, is looking to improve special teams and get more secondary scoring. With both not having the same effect as earlier in the season, getting guys not named Nick Bjugstad, Zach Budish or Kyle Rau on the score sheet even-strength and not taking bad penalties will help the Gophers put a damper in North Dakota's second-half surge. It's not an easy feat to win at the Ralph - just look at a few years ago where a top-ranked Gophers team went to Grand Forks and got swept, losing 6-0 - but they have won in tough environments.
Regardless, both games this weekend should be great. Minnesota-North Dakota games rarely disappoint (unfortunately I haven't forgotten about that 6-0 game) and the two earlier this year featured a 2-0 goalie duel and Kyle Rau capping a two-goal comeback with less than a minute left. Plenty has changed since then but with only 14 games left in the regular season, the four points at stake in Minnesota's final WCHA trip to Grand Forks might be more important than the rivalry.
Well almost. Some things haven't changed.
Minnesota and North Dakota play two games in Grand Forks Friday and Saturday. Friday's game starts at 7:30 PM on Fox Sports North while Saturday's game begins at 7:00 PM on FSN Plus.