Beginning Friday and continuing over the next six weeks through the day after Thanksgiving, 3M Arena at Mariucci will be host to nine hockey games. The opponents visiting the Gophers men's hockey team include three traditional rivals, a perennial title contender and a newcomer that's shaken up the college hockey landscape. Combined, they have 17 national championships and will provide coach Bob Motzko's team a rugged test as it attempts to reemerge as a national contender.
Those visits from Minnesota Duluth (Friday), Notre Dame (Nov. 1-2), Penn State (Nov. 15-16), Wisconsin (Nov. 22-23) and North Dakota (Nov. 28-29) also will serve as a gauge for another group.
The Gophers fan base.
How well will it show up?
Since the formation of the Big Ten hockey conference moved the Gophers and Wisconsin out of the WCHA and sparked college hockey's massive realignment, Minnesota's attendance has mainly been trending downward. The Gophers averaged nearly 9,800 at Mariucci in 2013-14. The past two seasons, it's fallen to 8,726, then 7,944. In last Friday's home opener against Niagara, the announced number was 7,548.
Of course, a visit from the Purple Eagles might not get the heart pumpin' and the corpuscles jumpin', but this six-week stretch that starts Friday should.
Minnesota Duluth checks all the boxes you'd want in an opponent. In-state rival, former WCHA foe, two-time defending national champion, a roster loaded with Minnesota players. The atmosphere should be loud and festive.
Notre Dame doesn't fall into the traditional rival category, but the Fighting Irish are a national contender under coach Jeff Jackson. They've played for a national championship as recently as two seasons ago at Xcel Energy Center and have been to four Frozen Fours since 2008. On the list of teams ripe to break through for a first national title, the Irish are at the top.
Penn State isn't the traditional draw that the others during this stretch will be, but there's intrigue with the Nittany Lions. They return the bulk of a team that averaged a nation's-best 4.54 goals per game last season and already have scored 20 in four games this year. If you're looking for racehorse hockey, you'll likely get it when the Gophers and Lions meet.
Wisconsin, brimming with young talent like 2019 first-round draft picks Alex Turcotte and Cole Caufield, showed how improved it might be by sweeping Minnesota Duluth 6-2 and 3-1 last weekend. Throw in the border battle atmosphere, and the rivalry ramps up.
North Dakota wraps up this stretch with a crescendo on Thanksgiving night and Black Friday. The Fighting Hawks will make their first visit to Mariucci since November of 2016, and there won't be a shortage of intensity. If history's a guide, we might even see some shenanigans in the handshake line.
Will the size of the crowds at Mariucci match the quality of opponents? That's to be determined. Seven years in, resentment over Big Ten hockey lives on for many. And the fact that the Gophers have missed the NCAA tournament in three of the past four years hasn't helped, either. But this season's Gophers schedule, especially this six-week stretch, should be something to savor.