The first weekend in February. The heart of winter. And a quartet of highly ranked hockey teams engaging in rivalries with a bit of snarl to them.
All of it adds up to a special weekend on the University of Minnesota campus when the Gophers men's team, ranked No. 2 nationally, meets No. 11 Wisconsin, and the top-ranked Badgers women's squad faces the No. 2 Gophers.
One big letdown for the two Friday-Saturday Border Battle series: COVID-19 restrictions won't allow for the usual Gophers-Badgers crowds at 3M Arena at Mariucci and Ridder Arena.
Bob Motzko, Gophers men's coach, acknowledged the lost opportunity for a charged atmosphere in the stands but doesn't believe the product on the ice is suffering.
"I'll answer it two ways. One, if this were a normal year, [fans] would be coming out of the rafters this week, as we all know," he said. "Unfortunately, we're not going to see that. Two, I have been so impressed throughout our conference with how hard our players are playing. The intensity that these kids show up to play with, with no fans, has been outstanding."
Grace Zumwinkle, a senior co-captain for the Gophers women, is embracing the moment that the latest Minnesota-Wisconsin matchup offers.
"It brings out the best in both teams," she said.
When it comes to women's college hockey, the Gophers and Wisconsin reside in the sport's penthouse. Minnesota has won seven national championships and has been to 14 NCAA Frozen Fours.
The Badgers own five national championships — they're reigning champs after a 2-0 win over the Gophers in the 2019 NCAA final — and have appeared in 12 Frozen Fours.
"It's good to play against each other," Badgers coach Mark Johnson said. "We get a feeling of where we are."
Gophers coach Brad Frost is hopeful that his team can improve upon its recent performances against Wisconsin. On Jan. 15-16 in Madison, the Badgers (8-2 overall/WCHA) scored a decisive 5-0 and 6-3 sweep, taking the No. 1 ranking from the Gophers (9-4).
Wisconsin has won four consecutive games in the series, leaving the Gophers 3-8-1 against the Badgers over the past three seasons.
"You look at it and try to figure out what happened," Frost said. "Are there some things they did really well, and are there some things we didn't, and vice versa?"
Added Zumwinkle, "Coming into this weekend, certainly everyone on our team does have a chip on their shoulder."
To reverse the trend in the series, the Gophers must find a way to slow a Badgers attack that's averaging 3.9 goals per game. Senior forward Daryl Watts has 11 goals and 10 assists in only 10 games. Her 2.1 points per game lead the country.
"Both teams have the ability that if you have a lapse, it can end up in the back of your net," Frost said.
Big Ten lead on the line
The Gophers men bolted to a 10-0 start to the season, ascending to the top of the national polls. They suffered their first loss on Jan. 9, falling 3-1 to the Badgers in Madison before rebounding with a 5-3 victory the next day.
Cole Caufield, Wisconsin's star forward, promptly added a dash of spice to the rivalry, saying, "We competed with the so-called No. 1 team in the country, so we can't hang our heads over anything."
Gophers defenseman Robbie Stucker expects an uptick in the intensity this weekend.
"There's always going to be guys yelling, chirping," he said. "You notice the rivalry pretty quickly."
There's plenty at stake, too. The Gophers (15-3, 11-3 Big Ten) are first in the conference standings with 33 points, five ahead of Wisconsin (11-7, 9-5). With each Big Ten regulation win worth three points, a Gophers sweep would either give them a huge advantage whereas if the Badgers sweep they would have the conference lead.
Motzko wants his team to manage its emotions and stay out of the penalty box. The dangerous Caufield leads the nation with 14 goals, two more than the Gophers' Sampo Ranta.
"There's always going to be a little more excitement in the air when you've got your top rival coming in," Motzko said. "… We've got to keep things in check. We've got to be a disciplined team."
That, of course, isn't always easy in a rivalry game.
"It's a huge weekend," Ranta said.
"These are the games we live for. These are the games we'd dream about when we were little kids."