FARGO — They came from the land of ice and snow, trekked through more ice and snow to get here and now will play for a coveted trip to the land of sun and sand.
The Gophers and St. Cloud State will face off at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at Scheels Arena in the NCAA men's hockey Fargo Regional championship game, with the winner jetting off to Tampa, Fla., for the Frozen Four.
"They're on a roll right now and are playing awfully well,'' Bob Motzko, coach of the top-seeded Gophers, said of the second-seeded Huskies. "They play with confidence, too. It's gonna be a hell of a game.''
As they seek the right to play on college hockey's biggest stage, these intrastate rivals offer both a study of contrasts and common bonds.
Some of the common:
- Both teams were coached by Herb Brooks, who led the Gophers to three NCAA championships in the 1970s, became a legend for the Miracle on Ice in 1980 and then guided St. Cloud State in the transition from the Division III ranks to a Division I program.
- Motzko has coached both teams, leading the Huskies from 2005-18 and taking them to their first Frozen Four in 2013 before leaving to take the job at Minnesota, where he had been an assistant on the Gophers' 2002 and '03 national championship teams.
Some of the contrasts:
- The Huskies embrace a blue-collar, dirt-under-the fingernails mentality, matching the approach of coach Brett Larson, a former defenseman and captain for his hometown Minnesota Duluth team. The Gophers, chock-full with 14 NHL draft picks, are known for the offensive skill and flair that routinely creates highlight-reel goals but sometimes leave observers wondering if they were too cute by half.
- The fanbases for the Gophers and Huskies have a strong rivalry and play to contrasting stereotypes. To many Huskies fans, the Gophers faithful is an arrogant group that believes that while they might not have invented hockey, they were key in the decision to make the puck round. Gophers fans often mock the Huskies' institution as "Jan Brady State University,'' a comparison to the angst-ridden middle daughter who can't escape older sister Marcia's overbearing shadow.
A time to grind
Of course, reality shows there is much more nuance to this matchup than Team Pretty vs. Team Gritty. Watch the Gophers' top line of Logan Cooley centering Matthew Knies and Jimmy Snuggerud, and you'll see 40-grit sandpaper on display as they battle for the puck.
And it's not as if the Huskies have a bunch of muckers. Veeti Miettinen, a Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick, got St. Cloud State's 4-0 semifinal win over Minnesota State Mankato started by firing a perfectly timed shot through a screen for a power-play goal. He and linemates Jami Krannila and Zach Okabe have a combined 51 goals and 61 assists this season.
"They're obviously a great team and definitely battle-tested,'' Gophers defenseman Jackson LaCombe said. "They're going to put up a really good fight. It's going to be a great game, and we've got to bring our 'A' game for sure.''
For Motzko, the 'A' game means battling through the maze of bodies that opponents employ to deny zone entries. Canisius frustrated the Gophers on Thursday to the point where the Golden Griffins held a 2-1 lead before Minnesota blew it open for a 9-2 romp. Patience and perseverance become paramount in the playoffs.
"You weren't going to get any fancy plays,'' Motzko said. "They were keeping three and four guys back or three guys across the line. You had no choice but to dump pucks. … We had to play a grind game, which is something we're continually getting better at.''
'Have to sacrifice'
Larson, too, knows that things don't come easy in elimination games. His Huskies had only seven shots on goal through the first 30 minutes against Minnesota State, but once Miettinen scored, St. Cloud State seized the momentum through hard work.
"It's playoff hockey, and everybody's playing that way in this time of year,'' Larson said. "You're gonna have to sacrifice. You're gonna have to block shots. You're gonna have to take hits to get pucks out.''
Saturday's game marks the third meeting of the Gophers and Huskies this season. They split a home-and-home series on Jan. 7 and 8, with the Huskies winning 3-0 in St. Cloud and Minnesota prevailing 2-1 in overtime in Minneapolis. The teams know each other well.
After St. Cloud State's semifinal victory, Larson was asked if he had a game plan should the title game opponent be the Gophers.
"Yes,'' he responded with a smile, making his point with just one word.