The Colorado College series brought a former conference foe. The Niagara series featured the festivities of home-opening weekend. And now, the Gophers men’s hockey team faces an in-state rival that should get their fans’ hearts skipping a beat:
Two-time defending national champion Minnesota Duluth.
The Gophers and Bulldogs meet in a home-and-home set that begins Friday night at 3M Arena at Mariucci and concludes Saturday night at AMSOIL Arena in Duluth. The long-term importance of the series won’t be known until NCAA tournament bids are determined in late March. Two years ago, for example, the Bulldogs edged the Gophers 4-3 in overtime in Duluth in the season opener. That enabled UMD to edge Minnesota for the final NCAA at-large bid, and the Bulldogs cashed in that chance by winning the Frozen Four at Xcel Energy Center.
For the short term, the stakes are bragging rights between programs that were longtime WCHA combatants.
“There’s no question you talk about it, but they know it. They’re athletes,’’ said Gophers coach Bob Motzko, whose team last year tied UMD 1-1 in Duluth and won 7-4 in Minneapolis. “Duluth’s been on nice run the last couple of years, especially at the end of the year. They’ve proven to be a big tournament team. We haven’t been in the tournament [the past two seasons]. It’s a test for us. We’re going to get back to that level.’’
So far, the youthful Gophers and veteran Bulldogs have had differing results. Minnesota split with Colorado College on the road and swept Niagara, while UMD opened with a home split against Massachusetts Lowell before being swept 6-2 and 3-1 at Wisconsin against a Badgers team heavy on young offensive talent.
“Sure wish they would’ve won one,’’ Motzko said of the Bulldogs. “You’re going to get a little ornery squad in here.’’
* Gophers senior co-captain Tyler Nanne, who suffered an upper-body injury when he went hard into the boards on Saturday, practiced with the non-contact red cross jersey. Motzko said Nanne “would be fine to go’’ for the UMD series.
* Forward and co-captain Sammy Walker was named the Big Ten’s second star of the week after his performance against Niagara. Walker scored two goals, including the overtime winner on Friday, and an assist in sweep of the Purple Eagles. He has team-leading three goals and five points in four games, avoiding any thoughts of a sophomore slump. “He doesn’t know he’s a sophomore. He’s just a hockey player, and away he goes. He and [Blake] McLaughlin are playing awfully good for us.’’
Wisconsin goalie Daniel Lebedeff, who keyed a sweep of Minnesota Duluth, was named the Big Ten’s first star, and Michigan forward Jack Becker of Dellwood, Minn., was named third star after scoring three goals in a sweep of Lake Superior State.
* The Big Ten Network has added the Gophers’ Nov. 9 game at Michigan to its TV schedule. Game time is 4 p.m. (Central).
* The Gophers’ Dec. 6 game at Ohio State will have a 7 p.m. (Central) starting time and will be televised by BTN. The Dec. 7 game against the Buckeyes is the only remaining game on the Gophers’ schedule that will not be televised in some form or another.