MINNEAPOLIS — Freshman goaltender Adam Wilcox had heard all about the rivalry between his Minnesota Gophers and the University of North Dakota growing up in South St. Paul and spending the past few months in Minnesota’s locker room.
The rivalry, described by some involved as “hatred,” is hard to escape in Minnesota or North Dakota. Hearing about the rivalry and experiencing it are vastly different. Wilcox had been through the buildup, but never been involved in the rivalry.
It should be no shock that he handled his first experience against North Dakota as seamlessly as he has his move into the No. 1 goaltender spot for the Gophers. Nothing seems to bother the freshman, not even the green and black of North Dakota’s forwards bearing down on him.
“It was weird,” said Wilcox, who made 24 saves in Minnesota’s 5-1 win Friday night. “Growing up and seeing them across the border, it’s always like, kind of in shock when you first get on the ice with them. But when it starts, it’s just like every game and they’re going to come a little bit harder to the net because they’re fast and how they’re a rival.”
Wilcox made several big saves in the third period, and the Gophers blew the game open with three goals in the third to win the first game of the final regular-season conference series between the two teams at Mariucci Arena. The longtime rivals will be in separate conferences next season with Minnesota moving to the new Big Ten conference. Nate Condon had a shorthanded goal and two assists for the top-ranked Gophers (17-3-3, 8-3-3 WCHA) and Erik Haula returned to the lineup for the first time since Dec. 30 because of an injury and had an empty-net goal and an assist.
With Minnesota pressuring North Dakota goaltender Clarke Saunders (22 saves), Wilcox kept the momentum fully on the Gophers’ side with a few highlight stops in the third with UND trying to get back in the game. He made one snatching glove save while falling back on a puck that had flipped in the air. He also slid across the crease and made a pad save on another prime North Dakota scoring chance. He made 10 saves in the third period.
“Wilcox doesn’t seem to be fazed by anything,” Condon said. “He’s that kind of kid. There’s always the goalies where you can’t talk to them and stuff. Wilcox just kind of hangs out and does his own thing, or whatever. It doesn’t matter to him.”
With Wilcox doing his part, Minnesota took control when Ben Marshall scored his fifth goal of the year on the power play for Minnesota with just 5.2 seconds left in the second period.
“Obviously you never want to give up a goal, especially with five seconds left,” North Dakota forward Corban Knight said. “But I think our team’s mentally tough enough that we should have rebounded and we weren’t able to really recover from that.”
Nate Schmidt and Zach Budish also scored for the Gophers. Nick Bjugstad and Seth Ambroz had two assists each.
Condon, who had four shorthanded goals last season, scored his eighth goal this season, taking advantage after North Dakota’s Joe Gleason broke his stick while taking a shot from the point on a UND power play. Condon gathered the loose puck and beat Gleason down the ice before making a nifty move to get around the defender and flip the puck past Saunders for his fifth goal in six games.
“There was no doubt I was going to the net,” Condon said. “There was no way I was going to pull up at that point. But I was just surprised he didn’t get more of a body on me. I just slipped by him a little bit.”
Haula, who said he had practiced three or four of the five days leading up to Friday’s game, added the final tally and became the first Minnesota player since Jay Barriball in 2009 to pass the 100-point mark for his Gophers’ career. Haula, who missed the three previous games, said there he wasn’t going to miss the rivalry series with North Dakota.
“Let’s put it this way, I’ve never felt better after this win,” Haula said. “Yeah, I wasn’t going to miss it.”
Minnesota, which is unbeaten in its past nine games, goes for the sweep Saturday with a 5 p.m. start as part of Hockey Day in Minnesota.
“These are the weekends we get really excited for,” Wilcox said. “You can tell the intensity in practice is going up. Especially before the game, the locker room has a lot of energy in there. It’s a whole different atmosphere, especially with the crowd we had tonight.”