Biggest hockey weekend of the year

 No. 1 Minnesota against No. 6 North Dakota. Say no more.

It isn’t just the fans who have circled this weekend on their calendars since the schedule came out. The Gophers unanimously say this weekend series against North Dakota is the one they’ve been anticipating all year. Not Wisconsin. Not Boston College. As always: Minnesota-North Dakota.

This series ranks in a dead heat with Vikings-Packers and North Stars-Black Hawks as the all-time favorite Minnesota sports rivalries.

It’s also the last blast for some time. As you know, the Gophers and The Team Formerly Known As the Fighting Sioux will not play again for the foreseeable future. Minnesota’s move to the Big Ten next season will leave a number of schedule openings for non-conference games but North Dakota isn’t plugged into any of them so far. When asked if North Dakota will be on the schedule any time in the near future, head coach Don Lucia would only say, “It’s being worked on.”

Gophers lead the nation: The top-ranked Gophers come in with the nation’s top offense, defense, power play and penalty kill. Minnesota also leads the nation in scoring (3.82 goals/game) and scoring margin (+2.00/game).

Freshman goalie Adam Wilcox (15-2-3, 1.65) tops all WCHA netminders. Nationally, Wilcox is No. 2 in wins and win percentage.

Erik Haula is being evaluated for a possible return Friday or Saturday. He’s recovering from a wrist injury against Boston College. Despite missing the last three games, Haula is still the Gophers’ top scorer with 26 points.

Scouting the Team Formerly Known As the Fighting Sioux:

• UND is coming off a home split against Colorado College — a 4-3 loss followed by a 5-3 win. The Friday loss squelched a seven-game unbeaten jag (6-0-1)

• The teams are in a dead heat for third in the WCHA standings, two points behind Denver (which is at St. Cloud State this weekend) and Omaha (idle).

• UND is paced by the high-scoring one-two punch of senior forwards Corban Knight (10-21-31) and Danny Kristo (13-17-30). Knight had an assist in each game against Colorado College last weekend, extending his scoring streak to a whopping 17 games, UND’s longest in a decade. The duo has combined for 32 points in just the last seven games.

• North Dakota gets a lot of points form the blue line. UND has the third-highest scoring defense in the nation (Minnesota is fourth). NoDak boasts six NHL draft picks among its defense corps.

• We’ll see an interesting clash of top offensive teams. While the Gophers have the league’s top offense in overall games, North Dakota (averaging 3.71 goals/game) leads in WCHA play.

• In all the WCHA preseason polls Minnesota was picked to finish first and North Dakota second.

• UND freshman to watch: No. 19 Rocco Grimaldi. He tore it up at the World Junior Championships, scoring the game-tying and game-winning goals in the Gold Medal Game and being named Player of the Game for the U.S.

Potulny a Grand Forks native: Nice article in The Grand Forks Herald’s January 17 edition about Gopher assistant coach Grant Potulny. He’s a Grand Forks Red River grad who was hired in something of a pig-in-a-poke scenario by Don Lucia, given that the former Gopher captain had no coaching experience and the rules no longer permit a graduate assistant coach.

Key questions about this weekend:

Q: Can I get a ticket?

A:
Good luck. Technically, both games are sellouts (10,000 each) although scalpers and online sources like StubHub have a handful of tickets. At last check, SRO tickets were priced at up to $92 while lower center-ice seats were going for well over $300.

Q: Are the Gophers ever going to play North Dakota again?

A:
See above. My answer is YES for no other reason than a future with no Minnesota-North Dakota regular season games is unthinkable.

Q: How close is the all-time series?

A:
REAL close. This is the 289th clash. The Gophers lead 144-130-14. Minnesota leads 81-52-6 on home ice. The Gophers took four of the six games last season, including a 5-2 win in the NCAA West Regional in St. Paul that moved the Gophers into the Frozen Four and ended the season for North Dakota.

Q: What IS the story on the North Dakota nickname and logo?

A:
Short version: The NCAA felt that Fighting Sioux was demeaning to Native Americans and ordered the moniker and the famous Indian-head logo stripped from all North Dakota uniforms, signage and everything else. It further punished the program by permitting it to have NO nickname until 2015.Technically, the school says it has “retired” the nickname and logo. It happened at a weird time, too: between the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs last spring.

UNDlogo.jpg


The school is now known simply as The University of North Dakota. We’re also permitted to call it North Dakota. Wait till you see the uniforms.

Among many, many issues created by the ruling: what to do about the tens of thousands of Sioux logos that adorn Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks? They’re everywhere: on seat backs, in the huge carpet, in the tiles. It will take years to remove them all.

Q: Has all that nickname stuff mattered attendance-wise?

A:
Definitely not. UND is averaging 11,651 fans per game which, during the NHL lockout, made North Dakota the top attendance draw in all of hockey – in all of North America this season. Only one other hockey team on the continent averages more than 10,000 per game: the Québec Remparts of the QMJHL. The Gophers’ attendance average is 9,828.

Enough said. Bring on North Dakota! Casey Hankinson and I will call the shots Friday at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 5 p.m. as part of our incredible 21 hours of non-stop hockey on Hockey Day Minnesota – ONLY on FOX Sports North. Don’t go anywhere else!