The hottest ticket in town this weekend didn’t disappoint as the University of Minnesota men’s hockey team earned three points against the University of North Dakota in front of over-capacity crowds at Mariucci Arena.
The Golden Gophers recorded a 5-1 win versus UND in Friday night’s series opener and Minnesota overcame a two goal deficit in the third period on Saturday to earn a 4-4 tie against the always tough team formerly nicknamed the “Fighting Sioux.”
The three points earned by Minnesota moved them into a first place tie atop the WCHA conference standings with St. Cloud State University who impressively swept Denver University this weekend at home. SCSU actually leapfrogged Denver in the conference standings as the Pioneers from DU came in to the weekend as the conference leader along with idle Nebraska-Omaha.
This weekend series versus UND was the last regular season conference meeting between the two schools as they both will join new conferences for next season with UND joining the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference and Minnesota joining the new Big Ten Hockey Conference.
Fans filled Mariucci Arena to the tune of 20, 574 total attendees for the weekend games. Seating capacity for the building is just 10,000.
The excitement to see this battle of rivals one last time in the regular season produced an electric atmosphere and great hockey from both teams.
On Friday night, Minnesota was sparked by the return of leading scorer Erik Haula from injury and routed North Dakota thanks to five straight unanswered goals from the Maroon and Gold. Haula recorded a goal and an assist in the game.
Freshmen goaltender Adam Wilcox started and finished both games for Minnesota and stopped 46 of the 51 shots UND put on net over the two contests. Wilcox now sits at 16-2-4 overall on the season and was key in the Friday win after he completely shut down the hard-charging opponent after they took a 1-0 lead on a Michael Parks power play goal at the 3:34 mark of the second period.
The highlight of the night came from junior forward Nate Condon who scored on a breakaway goal during a Minnesota penalty kill late in the third period. UND defenseman and Edina, Minn. native Joe Gleason snapped his stick in-half and Condon capitalized on the opportunity by racing down the ice and flipping it behind North Dakota goaltender Clarke Saunders.
The No. 6 ranked team from North Dakota could not be held down all weekend and came out very aggressive in the Saturday series finale on Hockey Day Minnesota. UND actually held two different two-goal leads in the game and leaned on their top three scorers on the season.
The combination of Corban Knight, Danny Kristo, and Rocco Grimaldi lead the scoring charge for UND on the season and the trio each recorded big goals in the game. Grimaldi also added an assist on a third period goal from Drake Caggiula to round out the goal scoring for North Dakota.
The Caggiula goal for UND made the game 4-2 in favor of the Green and Black attack at the 7:20 mark of the final regulation period of the series.
Down again in a deep hole, but not completely out, Minnesota leaned on their top scorers as Nick Bjugstad and Haula combined to get the Gophers within one at the 11:10 mark of period three. Bjugstad used his huge 6-foot, 6-inch reach to poke a loose puck in the crease behind UND goaltender Zane Gothberg.
The Gophers would earn the one point split on the game thanks to another big goal from Condon. The junior buried a great pass from captain Zach Budish behind Gothberg at the 17:01 mark of the game to finish off the three-point weekend.
Condon set the tone for Minnesota on the weekend earning five total points between the two rough and physical games. The effort should garner attention for Condon to receive WCHA Offensive Player of the Week honors.
The series was a classic reminder to the level of play these teams bring to the table every time they face each other. It will be interesting to see how long the rivalry will continue after this season when the two teams go on different paths to newly formed conferences.
Minnesota and North Dakota are not scheduled to play again in the regular season for at least the next three seasons.
This hole in the schedule will feel weird for player, coaches, and fans alike. The teams could see a rematch later in the 2012-2013 playoffs, but not knowing that rivalry will continue to build for the next few years just doesn’t seem right.
Minnesota will now go into a home-and-home series next weekend against Minnesota State University – Mankato. With the Gophers hosting the Friday game at Mariucci Arena and the Mavericks holding home serve on Saturday night.
Look for Minnesota to retain their position as the No. 1 ranked team in the nation for another week when the USCHO.com rankings come out Monday.