Thursday, March 26, 2015

UMD-Minnesota Rivalry Makes More History

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- For Minnesota and UMD, playing head-to-head is old hat. They've done it a few times in the past, and surely are not done scheduling each other non-conference.

But this is crazy.

When the Gophers and Bulldogs parted ways from the WCHA after the 2012-13 season, fans were left wondering if they would ever lock horns as much as they had in the past.

After Friday's NCAA Northeast Regional semifinal here, the teams will have met five times this season and eight since becoming non-conference adversaries two years ago.

To put that in perspective, the teams met twice in each of the last two years of their WCHA affiliation. They hadn't met four times in a regular season since UMD's national championship season of 2010-11.


(Scratch that. I'm bad with omens. I thought hearing "Holiday Road" at the hotel in Denver before the Friday playoff game was a good omen. Forget I brought the subject up.)

"You grow up playing against some of these guys," Minnesota senior captain Kyle Rau said. "It's fun playing them in college."

Senior Travis Boyd ranks the rivalry "right up there" with Wisconsin and North Dakota. "I guess this one's got a bit more of a rivalry because more Minnesota kids are playing for Duluth."

Head coach Don Lucia doesn't disagree with his players.

"It's a respectful rivalry. I like their coaches. I like their players. UMD does have a lot of Minnesota kids, more than St. Cloud, or Mankato, or Bemidji does."

They're ready to make some more history on Friday afternoon (4:30pm Central time).

UMD and Minnesota have met 227 times previously. Only one of those meetings has come in the NCAA Tournament (2004, won by UMD 3-1). Furthermore, the teams have only had nine meetings where one team could end the other's season. The first of those came in the 1970 WCHA playoffs, where Minnesota dispatched UMD 3-2 in three overtimes before losing to Michigan Tech the next night to end the season.

The Gophers also ended UMD's season in 1975, 1979, 1981, 1983, 1988, and 1995, all in the WCHA playoffs. Since then, UMD has turned the tables, winning an epic 1998 WCHA playoff series in three games to finish the Gophers' season, then taking down Minnesota in that 2004 NCAA Tournament game, as well as the 2009 WCHA Final Five play-in game.

(Who can forget that 1998 game? I wrote about it the week the DECC closed. Can't say I've watched the DVD since that week, but 17 years later, I still get goosebumps. I miss the old goal siren at the DECC.)

Friday, someone's season will again be over at the hands of the other.

Oh, and I believe their home-and-home next season is in October. So that'll be fun -- ooh, the revenge angle. Can't wait.

Why have three of the four meetings been decided by one goal? It's not just because of the familiarity, though it doesn't hurt.

It's because the teams are very similar in their styles. Both like to get up and down the rink, play a pace game. They are blessed with the kind of skaters who can help accomplish that. And there are players on both teams that seem to really flourish against this particular opponent.

(On the UMD side, I'd count in honorary Minnesotan Austin Farley among those.)

But let's level here. The matchup is so closely contested that it will probably come down to goaltending and special teams.

UMD coach Scott Sandelin admitted Thursday the Gophers have a better power play, joking he wants to keep that "on the bench."

Lucia is confident in his goalie, junior Adam Wilcox, but he knows it's the biggest thing this time of year, and it's a lot of pressure to put on a player, no matter how good he is.

"It's very difficult to win this time of year without really good goaltending," he said. "Because you're playing such good teams. You're going to have some breakdowns. The teams that go on in these short tournaments, you have to have outstanding goaltending play. You can't let in leakers this time of year. That one goal's a difference maker."

Sandelin is fully confident in his freshman, Kasimir Kaskisuo.

"I think he's been pretty consistent. He's older, and he's got a pretty good demeanor about him. He's pretty focused on what he needs to do. Our guys have a lot of confidence in him."

These teams know each other entirely too well for this matchup to come down to anything else. No surprises are left in the bag. It's about execution now.

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