Forget Iowa, give me North Dakota.
With all apologies to our embarrassed and Floyd-less friends south on I-35, Minnesota hockey fans look forward to the one or two weekends a year they get to play the University of North Dakota and vice versa. Like the Wisconsin Badgers, UND brings out a passion in Gopher fans everywhere that the majority of the WCHA has when they come to town. When fifth-ranked Minnesota (7-1-0, 4-0-0 WCHA) and fifteenth-ranked North Dakota (3-4-1, 1-3-0 WCHA) , it's a rivalry unlike few others in college hockey.
And it's this weekend.
For one reason or another, there are plenty why everyone tries to raise their game. The other team plays cheap. They stupidly think they have the best arena in college hockey. They go on about their alumni in the NHL like two years mattered. Their fans are band-wagoners who don't show up when things go bad while our fans are more loyal than Apple users. They are obsessed with national titles and the coach who chokes and can't win the big one. Unlike our team's fans who couldn't care less, their fans are preoccupied with the success and failure of our team like they wear the jersey underneath.
Most importantly, they think they're so cool because they have the stones to make fun of our nickname.
On the ice, there have been even more great moments. There's Minnesota beating North Dakota in the 1979 Frozen Four with Neal Broten's legendary goal, Blake Wheeler almost replicating Broten to win the 2007 WCHA Final Five Robbie Bina's 180 foot goal on Jeff Frazee, North Dakota having a role in knocking Minnesota out in three consecutive NCAA Tournaments 2005-2007 and of course the fights.
Every series has some sort of fight and it's probably no coincidence one of my earliest Gophers memories is Scott Bell taking on the entire UND bench. More recently there's been North Dakota's Matt Frattin getting suspended in a first-round WCHA playoff game for annihilating Minnesota's Kevin Wehrs and a fight after final whistle between Darcy Zajac and Tony Lucia. These teams can't even shake hands without dropping gloves.
As it stands, this weekend's series looks good on paper for the fifth-ranked Gophers. The maroon and gold improved to 4-0 in the WCHA and sit on top of the standings after being the first team to sweep Alaska-Anchorage in Sullivan Arena since 2009. Their power play is the best in college hockey with 34.5% and Erik Haula, Kyle Rau and Nick Bjugstad have three of the top ten point totals in college hockey.Throw in goalie Kent Patterson's four shutouts with an entire team producing goals across all lines and it's been a good October for Minnesota.
On the other side of the Red River, North Dakota would like to forget October as they so far haven't played up to the expectations of the program. UND was a Frozen Four semifinalist last season but lost many key players from that team in Chay Genoway, Matt Frattin, Jason Gregoire and Brad Malone.
Unlike the Gophers with Rau, North Dakota also haven't gotten the production they were hoping for in their top freshman as WCHA Preseason Freshman of the Year Rocco Grimaldi has been limited to three games with a lower body injury. To make matters worse, 2011 first round pick J.T. Miller signed with the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL rather than step foot in Grand Forks and they began their WCHA season with three consecutive losses (to Wisconsin and St. Cloud State) before getting their first win Saturday.
Despite those troubles, Minnesota cannot count North Dakota out. Although the maroon and gold holds the early season and the overall series advantage (140-128-14), the only games which matter are this weekend. If there's a team to take advantage of the Gophers' five underclassmen on the blue line and tendency to kill multiple penalties in a short stretch, it's North Dakota. Junior Danny Kristo leads the team with twelve points and is one of several NHL draftees, including first round picks Brock Nelson and Derek Forbort, who have the offensive power to match Minnesota's nation-leading scoring.
However this weekend's series should come down to defense and play between the pipes. With North Dakota not having issues shooting the puck - in fact, they lost to Wisconsin 5-4 despite out-shooting the Badgers 42-15 - Patterson, who has a .939 save percentage, is going to once again have to play his best hockey. Minnesota is no stranger to winning games despite being out-shot by a heavy margin as they did it against Minnesota-Duluth but for the most part they have been a team who can create offense and dozens of scoring chances both nights. With Minnesota scoring in all but one period, the top power play against a UND team with no goaltenders having a save percentage above .900% - includeing WCHA preseason goalie of the year Aaron Dell - and a 78% (25 for 32) penalty kill, if the Gophers can do what they do best they should walk away with a win or two.
But the key word is should.
After all, this is a rivalry. There is no trophy on the line because these games don't need one. Pride is all anyone involved needs...although four points in the WCHA doesn't hurt either.
Minnesota and North Dakota square off for two games this weekend at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis. Friday's game starts at 7 PM on Fox Sports North with Saturday's at 7:30 PM on BTN. Both games are broadcast on ESPN 1500.