Gophers coach Don Lucia said North Dakota fans will fill the Ralph and make it a tough place for his team to win.
"They give their team a great advantage," Lucia said on Monday during his weekly radio show on WCCO. "There is no question the games will be sold out. They will be all excited that we are coming in because we are their greatest rival. But beyond that, they have a very good team.
"I really, truly believe, they are the best team in the country. They've got all facets of what you are looking for: good goaltending, a big, strong, vetereran D-corps and a group of forwards that can score and can play physical, too.
"They have a bunch of guys that decided that we all are going to come back because they felt that this team could win a national title. And I am sure for this group that anything less will be a disappointment for them. They are kind of geared up for it this year."
The Fighting Sioux were picked to win the WCHA regular-season title and, at the halfway mark, are in first place by two points over UMD and Denver. North Dakota is also ranked No. 2 this week in the two major national polls behind Yale.
Four of the next five series the Gophers play are against WCHA teams in the top 10 in the PairWise ratings. So the Gophers have a chance to get themselves back in the picture for a spot in the NCAA tournament if they get hot.
"Obviously what we have to do is start winning some games together," said Luca, whose team's longest winning streak this season is three victories. Once.
"When you are playing good teams you have an opportunity to rise. Certainly against [Minnesota] Duluth, Michigan, CC -- we seem to almost play better against the real good teams. [The Gophers were 4-0-1 against those three teams.] This [next series] is going to be a big chore, no question about it, going up to North Dakota.
"The No. 1 goal right now where we are sitting is to make sure we get home ice. You try to get home ice and then you try to win that first round and try to get to St. Paul [for the Final Five]. It is kind of like one step at a time."
The Gophers are tied for sixth place in the WCHA standings with Wisconsin, but lose the tie-breaker to the Badgers who have a 1-0-1 record against the U with two regular-season game left at the Kohl Center.
"We have improved a lot since the start of the year," Lucia said. "We have to remain injury-free. And you have to start winning games. What we can't do is, we can't keep getting swept because [then] there is too much ground to make up."
Nebraska Omaha swept the Gophers at home this season, Minnesota State on the road.
"We have to go up to North Dakota and get points this weekend," Lucia said. "It is not going to be easy. We are going to have to play awfully well. We will have to play smart, we will have to play disciplined, but I certainly think we are capable of doing that. Last year we went up there and we lost and tied. And we won one of three games in the [first round of the WCHA] playoffs. We were 2-3-2 in seven games against them last year.
"Our guys are looking forward to it. It's a great challenge."
Results of UND-Gophers series last season:
Oct. 16 @ Ralph: North Dakota 4, Gophers 0
Oct. 17 @ Ralph: Gophers 3, North Dakota 3, ot
Jan. 15 @ Mariucci: Gophers 3, North Dakota 3, ot
Jan. 16 @ Mariucci: Gophers 5, North Dakota 1
March 12 @ Ralph: North Dakota 6, Gophers 0
March 13 @ Ralph: Gophers 4, North Dakota 2
March 14 @ Ralph: North Dakota 4, Gophers 1
North Dakota outscored Gophers 23-16 in the seven games.
Here is the U's upcoming schedule:
Jan. 14-15 at North Dakota, tied for No. 2 in PairWise with UMD
Jan. 21-22 bye
Jan. 28-29 Alaska Anchorage
Feb. 4-5 at Minnesota Duluth, tied for No. 2
Feb. 11-12 Denver, tied for No. 4 with Boston College and New Hampshire
Feb. 18-19 at Wisconsin, tied for No. 8 with Nebraska Omaha and Notre Dame
The Gophers then finish the regular season with Michigan Tech at home and Bemidji State away.
Those five WCHA teams in the top eight in the PairWise ratings, if the season ended today, would make the NCAA tournament field as at-large teams for sure. Whoever wins the Final Five gets the automatic bid.
Besides the WCHA tournament champion, four other winners of postseason tournaments -- held by Atlantic Hockey, CCHA, ECAC and Hockey East -- also get automatic bids. Then at-large team fill out the 16-team field, meaning the top nine or 10 in the PairWise rankings, not yet in, will be picked.
Why only nine or 10? For sure one tournament champion -- the Atlantic Hockey winner -- will not be a top 16 PairWise team and maybe two or three if darkhorse[s] win other conference tournaments.
Say there are three tournament champions not in the PairWise top 16. Three in the top 16 make the NCAA field, three that are not do too, and that leaves spots for only 10 at-large teams.
So teams tied for No. 13 are on the bubble -- only one gets in, No. 14 and below is out.
Right now the Gophers are No. 24 in the PairWise rankings, which mimic the way the NCAA fills its field.
FRATTIN A CONCERN
Matt Frattin, a senior forward for the Sioux, is averaging almost a goal per game. His 20 goals are the most for any NCAA player this season.
"You try to keep your top four defensemen out there against a player like that," Lucia said. "You could see this coming. He got in trouble [last season]. He was suspended the first half of the season and allowed to come back in January.
"He had a big impact on their team the second half of the year. I think he had 12-14 goals the second half of last year for North Dakota and was arguably their best player at the end of last year. He came back for his senior season and is just having a huge year. And he has 20 goals already.
"It's hard to find 20-goal scorers in college hockey these days. And he is well on his way to being a 30-plus goal scorer. When you have a guy that is scoring just about every night, it takes the pressure off everybody else on your team. He is a very good all-around player because he can not only score goals, but he will play physical and play on both ends of the rink."