Game of the Week: Minnesota at North Dakota

What a difference a year makes.

That old chestnut applies pretty well to this weekend’s Minnesota-North Dakota collision, which happens to be the Game of the Week.

(Okay, they’re playing two games in Grand Forks, N.D., so it should be the Series of the Week. But let’s not split hairs.)

Exactly one year ago — on Nov. 9, 1999 — North Dakota was doing what most expected: firing out of the chute to a 5-0-1 record as coach Dean Blais’ Sioux were in the middle of what would eventually become an eight-game winning streak. No surprises.

Minnesota, coming off two difficult seasons in which the Gophers fell from national and then WCHA contention, was rebuilding under first-year head coach Don Lucia. Working against Minnesota was its schedule, which especially in the early going was the nation’s toughest. On Nov. 9, the Gophers sported a 2-5-1 record, with the losses coming to such programs as Boston College and Maine.

Matters would improve for Minnesota, and the Gophers eventually recovered to post a winning record overall, upset Colorado College in the first round of the WCHA playoffs and fall a couple of victories short of a bid to the NCAA tournament. Nonetheless, with expectations perpetually high in Minneapolis, that wasn’t good enough for Gopher backers.

North Dakota? The three-time defending WCHA regular-season champion coasted to a second-place finish in the league standings. The Sioux then turned up the heat en route to the league’s playoff championship and, three games later, another NCAA title.

This season, however, the roles are at least partially reversed. The Gophers chewed up early opponents Notre Dame, Bemidji State, Minnesota-Duluth and Alaska-Anchorage for five straight wins before finally tying the Seawolves in the series finale. Minnesota then welcomed archrival Wisconsin, at the time the No. 1 team in the nation, for a pair — and took it to the Badgers, winning 4-0 and 5-2 to leap to the top spot in the polls this week.

Everyone seems duly impressed, except Lucia, who still insists that his team needs work, and is overrated. He may have a point — after all, you can hardly be underrated at number one — but most would agree that this looks like a whole new Minnesota team.

North Dakota, meanwhile, got a taste of tough scheduling early on, tying three straight games against New Hampshire, Michigan and Maine before beating the Black Bears to remain “unbeaten,” but certainly a little vulnerable at 1-0-3. A shocking loss to moribund Michigan Tech came next, and when the Sioux also split with Minnesota State-Mankato, the doubters started piling on.

A road sweep of Denver soothed some nerves, but the questions remained. Of course, a 5-2-3 record would hardly be disappointing for most teams, but as in Minneapolis, expectations are always high in Grand Forks.

So why the reversal? In Minneapolis, the Gophers have been revitalized by a strong freshman class. They are firmly directed off the ice by Lucia and on it by captain Erik Westrum, the Gophers’ firebrand top scorer. Westrum (8-8–16) is among the NCAA’s top ten in goals and points, and has done pretty much everything the Gophers have asked in the early going.

Likewise, junior defenseman Jordan Leopold (2-11-13) has exceeded expectations with his playmaking, and sophomore John Pohl (4-6–10) is on the ice more often than any Gopher except Westrum and goaltender Adam Hauser (7-0-1, 1.86 goals against average, .919 save percentage), who has played every minute for Minnesota this season.

Westrum, Leopold, Hauser and Pohl have had plenty of help, of course, from the aforementioned freshmen. Winger Troy Riddle is second on the team with six goals, while Matt Koalska (3-3–6) and trailblazing Grant Potulny (3-3–6) — the Gophers’ first non-Minnesotan in recent memory — have displayed a knack for scoring as well. At the blue line, Minnesota’s reigining Mr. Hockey, Paul Martin, has begun to contribute too.

The overall effect has been a return to the offense of old in Minneapolis: the Gophers put together 51 shots on goal in the opening game of the Wisconsin series, and are averaging 5.25 goals per game so far, second in the nation to Western Michigan. At the same time, their 1.88 goals allowed per game is fourth-best around Division I.

Special teams have been a giant boon for Minnesota, too; the Gophers lead the nation in power-play conversion rate (17-for-47, 36.2%) and are fourth in penalty-killing (39-for-41, 95.1%). Not coincidentally, the only game Minnesota hasn’t won so far was against Alaska-Anchorage, a team noted for staying out of the penalty box. Other teams would be wise to take note.

North Dakota, meanwhile, hasn’t exactly disappointed, despite the losses of NCAA Most Outstanding Player Lee Goren, Jason Ulmer, Peter Armbrust and bruising blueliner Mike Commodore. Playing what Blais called their toughest schedule in his time there, the Sioux opened with the previously-noted 1-0-3 record against three nationally-ranked opponents.

The concern, however, was that the burst recent North Dakota teams have taken for granted wasn’t there. The Sioux were outshot by wide margins in each of those four games, leaving it to the goaltenders to save the day.

Luckily for UND fans, the Sioux have one of the best one-two netminding punches in college hockey in Karl Goehring (2-2-2, 3.09 GAA, .899 SV%) and Andy Kollar (3-0-1, 2.45 GAA, .932 SV%). Senior Goehring’s numbers are down thanks to tough days against MSU-Mankato and Michigan Tech, but make no mistake — the miniscule Goehring has been among the nation’s best his entire time in Grand Forks, and that’s not likely to have changed during the offseason.

Up front, the Sioux rely on high-scoring Jeff Panzer (7-12–19), the nation’s number two in points and assists, as well as junior center Bryan Lundbohm (9-8–17) and sophomore Ryan Bayda (7-9–16), who has followed a promising rookie campaign with strong work this year.

Bayda’s fellow WCHA All-Rookie teamer, Travis Roche, has produced eight points from the blue line, giving Aaron Schneekloth (1-6–7) and Chad Mazurak (2-4–6) a partner in defensive offense. Back a little farther, senior Trevor Hammer looks to fill the hole left by Commodore’s departure.

The results? North Dakota can still score (4.1 goals per game) and play defense (3.0 goals per game), but the margin between those numbers may be a little narrower than in recent years.

One last point. Minnesota-North Dakota has become one of the WCHA’s top rivalries, and with that kind of emotion come startling results. Case in point: the record between these two teams last season was 2-1-1, including a split in Grand Forks — hardly the one-sidedness one might have anticipated during a rebuilding year in Minnesota. Now it’s North Dakota that’s rebuilding, according to Blais, and the Gophers may actually be slight favorites this weekend.