Thursday, October 15, 2015

Rivalry Renews as Gophers and Bulldogs Meet Again

Unlike some players or coaches UMD may add over the course of time, there's no need to indoctrinate Brett Larson into the rivalry with Minnesota. A Duluth native and former UMD defenseman before joining the coaching staff for his first stint in 2008, Larson knows all about it.

"There's always that mentality that you feel like you have something to prove," Larson said this week. He relayed a story from his childhood, hearing a Minnesota assistant coach do a TV interview where he talked about how big the games were "for the kids from Duluth."

"One of the assistants from the Gophers goes on and says 'Ah, it's such a big weekend for the kids from Duluth. They all wanted to be Gophers but couldn't, so now they're trying to prove themselves.'

"There's nobody more fun to play against, and there's nobody more fun to beat."

It's a mantra echoed by Larson's one-time-boss-and-now-boss-again, head coach Scott Sandelin.

"To me, they're always a fun team to play, and they're always a fun team to beat, if you can. I think our guys feel the same way."

It's Gopher week. No one cares about last week (both teams lost their season openers to teams that were at least perceived to be underdogs heading in). Now, it's go time.

If last week's 3-2 loss to Bemidji State is largely going to be forgotten by Friday, last year's 4-1 record against the Gophers is a distant and possibly repressed memory.

"I don't know if last year matters," Sandelin said. "We're different teams and it's a different year."

Veteran Minnesota coach Don Lucia -- five wins away from 400 on the Gophers bench -- agrees with Sandelin. He pointed out this week that his team has ten new faces who know nothing of last year outside of what they've read and heard.

"I'm not into revenge," Lucia said. "Last year, they had a good team and they played very well against us. They deserved to win those games. They knocked us out last year. So be it."

If anything was going to stick in Lucia's craw about last year's meetings with UMD, it would have to be the last one. His team was practically lifeless -- especially during the second period -- and UMD cruised to a 4-1 win in the Northeast Regional. Lucia called his team "emotionally flat at times" after that game, something you hate to hear a coach say after an NCAA Tournament game. And in Lucia's case, he wasn't bus-chucking or excuse-manufacturing. He was accurate. His team didn't apply serious pressure on UMD until it was too late to matter.

Lucia is human. His players are human. Those back from last year, including talented captain Justin Kloos and future NHL power forward Hudson Fasching, are human. They might say they don't care about last year, but don't be surprised if this Gophers team has a little bit extra in the tank for Friday night at home against basically the only team they couldn't figure out a year ago.

As for lessons from last week, Larson talked glowingly about his penalty kill in Bemidji, which only allowed one power play goal in a relatively high 12 minutes of BSU man advantage time. Keep in mind all 12 minutes came after one of UMD's best killers, defenseman Carson Soucy, was ejected. Soucy won't play Friday thanks to an NCHC suspension, meaning Nick McCormack likely draws in for his season debut against Minnesota.

"I was pleased with our start Saturday for sure," Sandelin said.

"I thought we made some bad decisions and didn't have the right coverage (later in the game). It led to some outnumbered rushes that we need to eliminate."

The Gophers are younger, especially up front, where Kloos centers the top line, and Lucia deploys three freshmen -- Tommy Novak, Tyler Sheehy, and former Minnesota Wilderness standout Darian Romanko -- as the other pivots. UMD has a definite advantage in experience, especially at center, but it'll take solid execution from the start to exploit that.

Freshman Eric Schierhorn started in goal against Vermont on Saturday. As of Lucia's Wednesday press conference, he said he hadn't decided on a goalie plan for the weekend, but it stands to reason Schierhorn will go at least Friday. Lucia has typically been a fan of having a clear-cut No. 1 goalie. We'll see if Schierhorn -- an Alaskan by way of Shattuck-St. Mary's -- can be that guy for the Gophers. He played well against the Catamounts in a 3-0 defeat.

It's been a storied rivalry largely dominated by the Gophers over its 228 previous games. However, UMD is 5-3-2 over the last ten meetings, and UMD is 5-2-1 against the Gophers since the conference shift happened before the 2013-14 season. To keep that run of success going, the Bulldogs need to call on past lessons learned against this team.

The experience is obvious. Honorary Minnesotan Austin Farley has torn up the Gophers for seven goals and ten points in ten lifetime games. Actual Minnesotans Tony Cameranesi and Dominic Toninato have seven goals (five by Toninato) and 17 points (nine by Cameranesi) combined in 18 games. And goalies Kasimir Kaskisuo (four starts) and Matt McNeely (five) have combined to allow a scant 16 goals to Minnesota in over 500 minutes of work, for a 1.88 goals against average and a .935 save percentage.

As Larson pointed out, they found a pretty good formula last year. Maybe it's as simple as remembering what worked and making Minnesota show it can do something about it.


Exceptionally sad news came Tuesday night/Wednesday morning for the UMD men's hockey family. Suzie LeGarde Menz, the wife of former UMD men's hockey equipment manager Rick Menz, died in an incident at Twin Ponds in Duluth. Menz was struck by a car that eventually ended up in the water. The driver fled and was later arrested. He is facing criminal vehicular homicide charges, among others, and he has quite a rap sheet, as detailed in the story linked above.

Rick Menz worked for UMD from 1979-2008, a run of dedication toward one of the more thankless jobs in college hockey. The gig of equipment manager is one that includes extremely long hours, along with travel wherever the team goes. Rick retired after the 2007-08 season, but he never really left. As Larson noted this week, he remained involved.

"He's always been around, and he's always been a part of it. Rick's always involved, always around the guys. He's a guy (alumni) want to touch base with when they're around. I know the guys are just praying for his family."

There are no words of conciliation. We offer thoughts and prayers to Rick and his entire family, and to all who knew Suzie. You can read her obituary here, and there's a link there to leave a memory or best wishes to the family.

No comments: