MINNEAPOLIS — Two years ago, the 70-mile drive from Mariucci Arena to the National Hockey Center in St. Cloud was a routine trip for the Gophers. The University of Minnesota and St. Cloud State were used to battling each other twice a year.
Now that Minnesota has moved to the Big Ten Conference, trips like the one this weekend are a bit scarcer. The Gophers are no longer in the same division as any of their in-state rivals, something that took some getting used to last year in the Big Ten’s first season.
It’s weekends like this, though, that help keep those rivalries alive. Minnesota and St. Cloud State meet just one time this season, and each team will play host for one game. The Gophers will make the trek north Friday before turning around and hosting the Huskies on Saturday afternoon in Dinkytown.
In some ways, the rarity of these in-state games has made them an even bigger deal for Minnesota.
"Obviously every in-state rivalry is a fun weekend. Playing any Minnesota team’s fun," said Gophers defenseman Brady Skjei. "We know most of the guys on the Minnesota teams. It’s obviously fun."
Back when the Gophers were in the WCHA, they’d often have a pair of two-game series against most of the remaining teams in the state of Minnesota. That included St. Cloud State, Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota State and Bemidji State.
The move by Minnesota to the Big Ten eliminated those built-in rivalry games. Last year the Gophers took part in the inaugural North Star College Cup at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. The tournament pits four of the five Division I teams against each other in a two-day event aimed at keeping those rivalries alive. The Gophers won the tournament last year and hope to defend their title. They won’t be able to do so against St. Cloud State, which is the odd team out this year.
That means the two games this weekend are the only chance the Gophers will have to beat the Huskies, barring a possible NCAA tournament matchup.
"We want to win all of our in-state games and have the best record against those teams," said Minnesota senior captain Kyle Rau. "That’s something that we definitely try to do. St. Cloud, they’re going to be a good team at the end so it’ll help for Pairwise (rankings), too."
The Gophers have already played one in-state team when they swept Bemidji State last weekend. Minnesota has a home-and-home series — similar to this weekend’s against St. Cloud state — in November when the Gophers play one game at Minnesota-Duluth and host another.
Outside of that, Minnesota’s only other games in non-conference play against its in-state rivals will be the second annual North Star College Cup in January. Even though a smaller conference schedule (due to just six Big Ten teams) means more non-conference games, not many of them are against other Minnesota schools.
"We talked about that last year, the importance of that. When you have 14 non-conference games, it’s not like years past where you had six, maybe eight in the course of a season," said Gophers head coach Don Lucia. "The non-conference games are important for our team, and the whole league in general. I think every league with fewer league games now feels that the league members have to pull their weight, too, because it helps everybody."
Normally, the Gophers would have a conference game within the first month of the season. With the switch to the Big Ten, Minnesota’s first series against a conference foe isn’t until early December when the Gophers travel to East Lansing, Mich., to face Michigan State.
Until then, Minnesota will have its share of non-conference games on the docket. This weekend’s happens to be not only an old WCHA rival, but an in-state rival as well. The consensus among the Gophers is that these rivalries haven’t weakened any over the last two years.
Oh, and last year’s matchup in the NCAA tournament helped keep the rivalry alive and well. The Gophers won that game, 4-0, in the West regional final to advance to the Frozen Four. There’s a good chance that game is still fresh in the minds of the Huskies players.
"It’s going to be a great series," Rau said. "Obviously St. Cloud’s really good. I’m sure they’ll be looking for a little revenge from last year, so it’s going to be a good time. We’re looking forward to a good home-and-home with them."