Rivalry renewed: Minnesota, North Dakota amped up for Frozen Four clash

Gophers netminder Adam Wilcox summed up the Minnesota-North Dakota hockey rivalry thusly: "Both teams want to kill each other out there."

Paul Battaglia/Paul Battaglia/AP

MINNEAPOLIS — When the University of Minnesota hockey team left the WCHA conference to join the Big Ten this season, the biggest fear among Gophers fans was the loss of their longtime rivalries.

In particular, it meant that fierce rivals Minnesota and North Dakota would no longer play each other on a regular basis.

During the Gophers’ first season in the new six-team Big Ten Conference this year, Minnesota knew that its only chance to face off against now nickname-free North Dakota would be in the postseason. So as soon as UND won against Ferris State on Saturday to advance to the Frozen Four, the Gophers knew they had to do their part.

Sure enough, Minnesota also won by topping St. Cloud State 4-0 on Sunday. The victory set up a matchup next Thursday in the Frozen Four in Philadelphia that fans of both rivals have been waiting for all year.

Oh, and there’s a trip to the national championship on the line, as if these rivals needed any extra motivation.

"It’s going to be awesome to get a chance to play them," said Gophers sophomore goalie Adam Wilcox. "I was talking to coach (Grant) Potulny earlier in the year. He was like, ‘We’re for sure going to end up seeing them in the NCAAs at some point.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, we’re guaranteed to do it.’ Sure enough, we did. Everyone’s excited about it. It’s going to be a huge rivalry game. It’s not a better time to have it on a big stage like that."

Don Lucia is 22-22-4 against North Dakota in 15 seasons as the head coach at Minnesota, an indication of just how close this rivalry has been over the years. The Gophers and UND played just one series last year, with Minnesota coming away with a win and a tie.

When the Gophers left for the Big Ten and North Dakota ditched the WCHA for the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference, their paths were only destined to cross in the postseason as they won’t match up in the regular season for the next several years. Yet, while fans and players may be excited to see this rivalry renewed on April 10, Lucia has tried to downplay things a bit.

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"I’m sure the fans will enjoy it. It’s great. They’ve been a big rival over the years," Lucia said. "For me personally, I don’t care if we’re playing North Dakota or whoever. The challenge is to beat a good opponent on Thursday. That’s where your focus is. We’re not going to get all amped up just because we’re playing North Dakota. It’s whoever, the next in line in our path, just like St. Cloud was, just like Robert Morris was."

While Minnesota’s seven freshmen don’t have experience playing in this rivalry, most of them have grown up watching it. And if they’ve watched any Gophers games in recent years, they no doubt have a grasp on how much these teams despise each other.

Senior captain Nate Condon recalled a few of the more notable memories from his matchups with North Dakota. There was the instance in Jan. 2012 when fellow captain Kyle Rau was shoved in the handshake line by UND’s Ben Blood after the Gophers won 6-2. Two years earlier, Minnesota’s Kevin Wehrs was leveled in the corner by Matt Frattin of North Dakota in a check that started a brawl.

It’s unlikely that such an instance will take place in next week’s Frozen Four, given what’s at stake. But the Gophers haven’t forgotten just how heated things can get when Minnesota and North Dakota face off.

"I remember every time out there was going to be hard," Wilcox said. "Both teams want to win. Both teams want to kill each other out there. It’s going to be fun. It’s one of those games that you remember."

North Dakota snuck into the NCAA tournament thanks in part to one of Minnesota’s other big rivals, Wisconsin. The Badgers defeated Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game, effectively knocking the Buckeyes out of the playoffs while allowing UND into the postseason at the same time. North Dakota then went on to beat that same Wisconsin team in the first round before topping Ferris State in overtime to set up its meeting with the Gophers.

Minnesota, meanwhile, is playing arguably its best hockey of the season — and that’s saying something for a team that was ranked No. 1 in the nation for nearly the entire year. The Gophers took care of Robert Morris 7-3 in their first game Saturday before dispensing of in-state rival St. Cloud State by a 4-0 final to advance to the Frozen Four.

Both teams are playing well at the right time, and both are winning in similar fashions — only fitting for two bitter rivals.

"I think they’re real similar to us," Lucia said. "You look at their team and from an offensive standpoint, they’re balanced. On the back end, they skate very well. They bring a lot of offense from their defensemen as a group, like we do. And they have a very good sophomore goaltender.

"In many ways, I look at North Dakota and see ourselves."

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