Minnesota-Duluth expects toughest test to date against North Dakota

Before the season, it seemed the overwhelming majority had North Dakota running away with the MacNaughton Cup in 2010-11 as the WCHA’s team to beat. The Fighting Sioux have gone 1-3 after a 3-0-1 start and have fallen from second to ninth in the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll.

Enter Minnesota-Duluth, undefeated and ranked second in both polls with one of the nation’s best offenses.

When the teams meet this weekend in Grand Forks, the Bulldogs can use the game as a measuring stick to see where they stand at this point in the season and whether their 6-0-2 record is for real.

North Dakota, on the other hand, has the chance to show why it received so much respect by voters in preseason stories.

“They’re still one of the best teams in the country and in our league,” Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said Tuesday afternoon. “For an early-season matchup, it’s exciting from our standpoint to see where we’re at, too.”

The difference in this series could be how the Bulldogs’ high-octane offense matches up against North Dakota’s depth. The “big three” is putting up big numbers again this season for the Bulldogs, who rank sixth nationally in goals per game (4.25).

Mike Connolly leads UMD with 13 points (6-7–13) and Jack Connolly (3-9–12) and Justin Fontaine (4-8–12) each has 12 points. All three rank in the nation’s top 10 in scoring.

Freshman J.T. Brown is right behind with four goals and seven assists for 11 points.

UMD’s opponents have a combined record of 9-20-7, and Sandelin said he believes the Bulldogs will see the toughest competition they’ve seen all season when they step into Ralph Engelstad Arena on Friday.

“They’re obviously the best team we’ve faced to this point,” Sandelin said. “They’re deeper and a little more skilled than the other teams we’ve faced, plus we’re at [UND’s] rink. We need to take care of the puck and play smart hockey because teams with their ability will take it and put it in your net.”

The Sioux are known for having one of the deepest lineups in Division I and have the ability to roll four solid lines each week.

“Our depth is definitely going to be tested this week,” UND coach Dave Hakstol said Wednesday evening.

Grand Forks Herald beat writer Brad Schlossman reported Wednesday that the Sioux will be without Derek Forbort and Andrew MacWilliam on the blue line, and forward Carter Rowney is expected to miss the series, too.

According to Schlossman, Brad Malone is facing a possible suspension for his hit on Denver’s Jesse Martin last Saturday that earned Malone a game misconduct.

“We’ll endure these injuries and give a lot of guys the opportunity to help our team become a better team,” Hakstol said.

The Sioux was 3-0-1 after a sweep at Bemidji State but got swept at Maine and split with Denver. If any program in the WCHA is capable of getting out of a funk, however, it’s UND. The Sioux have a tendency to start out average but get hot down the stretch.

“It’s early in the season and there’s two good teams playing each other this weekend,” Hakstol said. “There will be a lot of skill on the ice. There’s a lot of intensity in these two teams.”

Here’s a look at what else is happening around the league this weekend.

No. 15 Wisconsin (5-2-1, 2-1-1 WCHA) at No. 17 Minnesota (5-3-0, 3-3-0)

They call it the “Border Battle,” when every year Gophers fans try to fill as much of Mariucci Arena with gold as they can but red-clad fans that support the Badgers make the drive to spoil it.

Minnesota rides a three-game winning streak into the series after it swept Colorado College last weekend. Gophers second-line winger Zach Budish is out with a torn ACL in his right knee and will be out until at least December unless he opts for season-ending surgery, according to Minnesota coach Don Lucia.

The Gophers erupted for nine goals Saturday night but Wisconsin’s defense is stingy as usual with only 15 goals allowed in eight games. Give some credit to senior goaltender Brett Bennett. The second-year transfer from Boston University has a 1.00 goals-against average with a .960 save percentage in 180 minutes.

The Badgers have the third-best power play at 31 percent and are unbeaten since Oct. 22. Wisconsin swept Michigan Tech in Madison last weekend.

Minnesota State (2-2-4, 2-2-2) at No. 8 Nebraska-Omaha (5-1-0, 2-0-0)

UNO returns to WCHA play for the first time in three weeks after a split at Michigan and a bye. UNO is still undefeated in WCHA play with two wins at Minnesota Oct. 15-16. UNO has scored more goals per game (4.50) than any other WCHA team so far. Rich Purslow leads the way for UNO with three goals and seven assists.

A win this week would be huge for Minnesota State, which will try to maintain its position in the league’s upper half, despite the fact that it has played six WCHA games against teams off to slow starts.

Colorado College (3-4-1, 1-3-0) at No. 13 Denver (3-3-2, 2-1-1)

The Pioneers will play with their teammate and assistant captain Martin in the back of their minds as they take on their in-state rival in a home-and-home series. Denver lost Martin last Saturday night when he suffered three fractures in his C-2 vertebra in a collision with North Dakota’s Malone.

Denver’s Sam Brittain is one of the nation’s hottest goalies (1.80 GAA and a .939 save percentage) through five games.

CC’s Schwartz brothers have scored almost half the Tigers’ goals. Jaden Schwartz has seven goals and big brother Rylan has two of CC’s 19 total for the season.

Bemidji State (0-3-1, 0-3-1) at No. 20 St. Cloud State (3-4-1, 1-1-0)

The Huskies hope this is the weekend to stop the slide that has taken them from fourth to 20th in the USCHO.com poll.

This could be the turn-around weekend for SCSU if the Huskies can draw man advantages and convert against BSU, a unit that has had a tough time killing penalties. The Beavers rank near the bottom of Division I with a 69.6 percent penalty kill. All four goals the Beavers allowed to Minnesota-Duluth last weekend were power-play goals, and BSU came away with only one point.

The Beavers are just thirsting for their first WCHA win.