PHILADELPHIA – The rivals appear naturally drawn to one another. So much so they found their way onto the same ice when the regular-season schedule wouldn’t allow it.
It took six months, four postseason victories and a trip to Philadelphia to make it happen, but North Dakota and the Gophers will get their rivalry matchup with a berth in the national championship game on the line.
The former WCHA members will meet in Thursday night’s NCAA Frozen Four semifinal at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
This meeting was very much willed into existence after college hockey’s conference shake-up split the old rivals following 66 years of consecutive meetings. Gophers goaltender Adam Wilcox said throughout the season that assistant coach Grant Potulny touched on the idea that the two teams would find a way to meet in the NCAA tournament.
Potulny, a Grand Forks, N.D., native who scored the winning goal in overtime for the Gophers in the 2002 NCAA final against Maine, said North Dakota is the rival a Minnesota player wants to face.
Gophers co-captain Kyle Rau made that clear during Wednesday’s Frozen Four interview sessions with media.
“I think it’s one game that when we moved to the Big Ten I was certainly going to miss. … It’s one of those games you see on the schedule and you kind of circle it. All games are important, but this one was the biggest one,” Rau said. “Now we get to play them [in the Frozen Four]. It’s awesome.”
The rivalry began to heat up in the 1940s and 1950s, days when North Dakota featured mostly Canadian players and Gophers almost entirely players from Minnesota. The rivalry matured when the two teams began meeting in the playoffs. But this season the neighboring programs were separated by new conferences, the Gophers moving to the Big Ten and North Dakota to the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
That separation during the regular season should make the rivalry even stronger on Thursday night.
“The rivalry between North Dakota and Minnesota is a good one. It’s a healthy one. There is a little bit of nastiness to it and respect between the two programs,” North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol said. “To be able to play on a large stage [Thursday] night is obviously great for the rivalry and for college hockey, and maybe for some new college hockey fans here in Philadelphia.”
What Philadelphia and the nation will see are two similar hockey programs. Not only do they share a state border and intense fan bases, but this year’s teams play a similar style of skilled, fast-paced hockey, in contrast to past years when UND played a more physical style.
The teams briefly crossed paths on Wednesday and exchanged some glares and winks, Wilcox said. Some were intense, some were friendly, but the anticipation was obvious, he added.
Throw out the Gophers’ overall No. 1 seed and any momentum North Dakota brought into this weekend. Statistics prove this rivalry supersedes any titles or runs either team carried into a matchup. The overall series record is nearly split down the middle.
The Gophers are 145-130-15 against North Dakota overall in the series. The last time the two rivals met it ended in a 4-4 tie in January 2013. Their four NCAA tournament meetings have been split. The Gophers won the last NCAA matchup in the 2012 West Regional final. UND won their last meeting in the national semifinals in 2005.
“It doesn’t surprise me to not only hear the results are fairly even, but right down to the statistics [it’s even],” Hakstol said. “You’ve got two proud programs that lay it on the line. That’s what’s been done in the past, and I’m assuming that’s what will be done on Thursday night.
Previous meetings have included postgame handshake-line scuffles and late hits, but Gophers coach Don Lucia expects a clean game Thursday. There’s too much on the line to turn it into 60 minutes or more of scuffles, he said.
Even Gophers freshmen understand the importance of this rivalry. Freshman forwards Justin Kloos and Taylor Cammarata said they grew up watching the rivalry and developed a passion for it from afar. Freshman Vinni Lettieri is well-informed about its significance from his grandpa, Gophers hockey legend Lou Nanne.
“He just texted me and said ‘This is going to be the biggest battle you’ve been in and North Dakota is the biggest rivalry you’ve seen,’ ” Lettieri said. “I’ve gotten a great glimpse of it growing up, and I know it’s a fun rivalry to be in.”