No. 4 University of North Dakota (23-12-3) vs. No. 1 University of Minnesota (26-12-1)
Friday night's WCHA Final Five semifinal resumes the best rivalry in the conference (and possibly all of college hockey) when North Dakota and Minnesota take the ice at the Xcel Energy Center. The Gophers won three of the four meetings this year but UND, as always seems to be the case, is playing their best hockey right now and records can be thrown out when these two teams play.
After falling as low as 11th in the WCHA in November after being swept by Minnesota, the Fighting Sioux are 7-2-1 in their last ten games and have essentially clinched a NCAA Tournament berth with a 4-1 win over St. Cloud State Thursday night. North Dakota looked more impressive as the game went on and held off the Huskies' late comeback before scoring two empty-netter goals.
One of the big reasons for UND's late success is that the play of their best players has also stepped up. They got a pair of goals Thursday from sophomore Brock Nelson (New York Islanders) and the forward has five goals in his last six games and 25 this season. Danny Kristo (Montreal Canadiens) had two points last night has scored in seven of his nine games.
In addition, other players like Carter Rowney (averaging a point per game in the last seven) and Michael Parks [Philadelphia Flyers] (four points in two games against Bemidji State last weekend) are also heating up and the Fighting Sioux can rely on their depth (even if they only suit up 11 forwards) if teams choose to focus on the top line of Kritso, Nelson and Corban Knight (Florida Panthers).
Minnesota also utilizes its depth well and it's been one of team's trademarks this season en route to their first MacNaughton Cup since 2007. While forwards Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau (Panthers) have been two of the better forwards in the WCHA, it's been sophomore forward Erik Haula (Minnesota Wild) who has shined lately.
Haula has five goals in his last three games, including four against Alaska-Anchorage last weekend, and is finding chemistry with defenseman Nate Schmidt and Rau (who set up his first goal Saturday) in addition to linemates Jake Hansen (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Sam Warning. If the Gophers can get scoring from two of their top three lines, they are extremely difficult to contain.
Two keys to Friday's game will be the respective goaltenders and the night itself. Aaron Dell made 29 saves Thursday and out-dueled St. Cloud State goaltender Mike Lee, who had allowed one goal last weekend, to lead the Fighting Sioux. He's already done the same against Minnesota back in January in a 2-1 Friday win, which is a night that has troubled the Gophers. They were 7-7 on Friday in the WCHA this season while going 13-1 on Saturday.
Unfortunately for the Maroon and Gold this is a single-elimination tournament. Gopher goalie Kent Patterson (Colorado Avalanche), meanwhile, has seven shutouts this season so he can match Dell or Brad Eidsness (Buffalo Sabres) in that department. As much as it wouldn't be surprised to see a shootout with these two offenses, there's a good chance one goalie makes 30-40 saves to help his team win.
Regardless, it will be a great game. The last time these two teams played Ben Blood (Ottawa Senators) fought Kyle Rau in the middle of the handshake line (not the first time that's happened between these two teams) and that has to be in the back of their minds. Minnesota and North Dakota hate each other and that's sure to spill over on the ice.
The winner of Friday's game faces the winner of Denver-Minnesota Duluth Saturday night for the WCHA Final Five Championship, Broadmoor Trophy and an automatic NCAA Tournament berth.