Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Minnesota Rivalry Is Still No. 1

Over the years, UMD has seemed to develop a healthy dislike of St. Cloud State. It probably helps that the Bulldogs can't win in the National Hockey Center to save their lives, and the Huskies always seem to struggle at the DECC. The games always seem to get kind of chippy, and UMD fans don't have much love lost for St. Cloud State fans (or parents, as luck would have it).

The intensity on the ice certainly contributes to the overall image of a rivalry between two teams, but it is not usually a reasonable substitute for history and off-ice perceptions. UMD has that with Minnesota. Generally speaking, the Gophers are the Bulldogs' No. 1 rival, and you need look no further than the stands at Mariucci Arena this weekend to find out why.

Unlike other WCHA venues, where UMD fans are typically stuck in a faraway corner and generally not heard that much unless you're right by them, Bulldog fans are scattered throughout the crowd at the Gophers' rink. You can't tell them by their colors, but you can tell them when UMD scores. It's not quite like Packer fans in the Metrodome, but it's much closer to that than any other WCHA rink.

Fans take this rivalry seriously. And they should. For UMD supporters, it's the only chance they get to thumb their nose at the "Main U." There is a certain annoying kind of arrogance that comes off the Gophers and their hockey fans. It's a much bigger school than UMD, and they have a greater tradition in all sports, including hockey. But yet UMD is on the same level -- Division I -- as the mighty Twin Cities campus.

It was that arrogance, that "We're bigger and better" mentality, that led to UMD referring to Minnesota as "UMTC" on the DECC scoreboard. UMTC, of course, stands for University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Gopher fans hate being called UMTC. They want to know why you don't call Wisconsin "UWM" or Michigan "UMAA," but they don't get that this whole rivalry thing is greater with Minnesota than any other program.

Rivals are supposed to irritate one another, right?

This storied rivalry, admittedly a one-way sort of rivalry over the years, resumes this weekend at Mariucci Arena on the UMTC -- er, University of Minnesota -- campus.

Conventional wisdom is that UMD will waltz into the Cities and stomp on the under-.500 Gophers.

Then again, conventional wisdom is often wrong.

See, this isn't a normal sub-.500 team. It's a sub-.500 team that has battled injuries, slumps by top players, and a schedule that would make Fresno State's football program -- you know, the anyone, anywhere, anytime guys -- cower in fear. Minnesota has played WCHA favorites North Dakota and Denver, nationally-ranked Wisconsin, and just faced a Bemidji State team that entered their non-conference set as the only unbeaten left in Division I.

It's a sub-.500 team with as much skill as anyone. Jordan Schroeder is still, for my money, the best player in the WCHA. Zach Budish, a big, strong power forward, might be the best freshman before it's all said and done. Defensemen Cade Fairchild and Aaron Ness can move the puck, while David Fischer can move the Earth. Goalie Alex Kangas is off to a very good start.

How the hell is this team sub-.500?

Well, as head coach Don Lucia said Wednesday, the schedule is a factor. So are injuries to senior Jay Barriball (out for the year) and freshman Nick Leddy (a first-round NHL pick who is gone for a couple more weeks). Schroeder slumped out of the gates, but is starting to pick up his play.

Lucia knows that his team is playing better now, but he also understands that there is room to improve. Senior Tony Lucia has been consistent up front so far, but no one else really has.

The power play is almost embarrassingly bad for how talented this team is. The Gophers know they have to pick up their special teams play, and Lucia is really emphasizing discipline this weekend. He knows that his very decent penalty kill will be challenged by the Bulldogs' power play, especially if UMD can improve their overall level of play on the big sheet.

The Bulldogs are sitting in a good position right now. These are their last two road games for over a month. They host North Dakota and Denver after a bye week, and that will take them to their holiday break. That means they can focus on this weekend, not worry about anything else, and do everything they can to maximize their take from this series.

Lines like Danberg and the Connollies, and Fontaine - Oleksuk - Bordson, could have a huge weekend on the big ice. Expect to see a more effective Dylan Olsen than what you saw in St. Cloud. He played better in Colorado Springs, and he appears to have shaken whatever ailed him early in the season. Brady Lamb is a much more confident player than at any point in his short UMD career to date, and he could be a big factor for the Bulldogs.

It will be interesting to see how UMD handles the goalie situation. Both Kenny Reiter and Brady Hjelle have had their moments, however, and it has to be expected that unless the Friday starter -- Reiter for a few weeks now -- plays spectacularly, he will yield to the other for Saturday's start.

For the Bulldog roster, this is always an important series. As it seems UMD has been able to recruit more and more players from Minnesota (16 this year), they're bound to see more intense games with the Gophers. The UMD roster is littered with guys who either grew up hating the Gophers, or grew up wanting to be one and didn't get the opportunity. Either way, they'll be ready this weekend.

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