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November 4, 2011 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

Minnesota Faces Biggest Test So Far

by Dan Myers/CHN Staff

Erik Haula\'s early contributions have helped Minnesota to a strong start this season. (photo: Ryan Coleman)

Erik Haula's early contributions have helped Minnesota to a strong start this season. (photo: Ryan Coleman)

MINNEAPOLIS — Last season, Minnesota watched as North Dakota took home the Broadmoor Trophy just seven miles from Mariucci Arena. This after a season where UND also won the MacNaughton Cup.

Three weeks after winning the Final Five, the Gophers watched the Sioux play in the Frozen Four in the same building. Two years ago, it was their rivals to the north who ended their season in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.

Minnesota's struggles in recent years have been no secret. Making it worse for Gopher players and fans, North Dakota has thrived — doing everything but winning a national championship over that span.

But as October has turned to November, the Sioux limp into Mariucci this weekend — already six points back of Minnesota in the WCHA standings and 10 spots lower in the national rankings. With that in mind, any hope the Fighting Sioux have of defending their conference championship may be on the line Friday and Saturday as these two fierce rivals play for what could be the last time for a quite a while, at least in Minneapolis.

"It's still early in the season, but it'd be big for us to get some wins. I think it would really put them in a hole," said Minnesota sophomore Nick Bjugstad.

Head coach Don Lucia told a Minneapolis radio station Tuesday that starting 1-3 would effectively end any hopes of competing for a conference championship. He was a little more diplomatic Wednesday, saying it was still awfully early in the season to make any such predictions.

Gopher captain Taylor Matson was much less reserved, however. The senior from Mound, Minn., was visibly fired up, letting loose with a number of great lines in preparation of this weekend's rivalry match-up.

"Everything is intensified during these games," Matson said. "There's something about skating out in warmups and looking over and seeing that green … we're just out to kill this year.

"The rankings don't mean anything. It's going to be a bloodbath, and we're looking forward to it."

For the first time in a long time, those rankings and statistics heavily favor Minnesota. The Gophers have the top three scorers in the conference in Erik Haula, Kyle Rau and Bjugstad. Their power play is humming along at a national best 35.9 percent. Their 5.38 goals per game is also tops in the country, and best in the WCHA by over a full goal per night.

"We've had a team effort, pretty much every night," said Minnesota forward Zach Budish. "That's what we're going to need moving forward."

North Dakota has become virtually a one-line team, with Danny Kristo, Corban Knight and Brock Nelson accounting for over half of the Sioux's scoring offense. Their goaltending is among the bottom two in the WCHA and both their power play and penalty kill rank in the middle of the pack.

"It's probably the best line we've faced the early part of the season so far," Budish said. "We need to focus on shutting them down."

On the surface, it looks like this weekend's contests should be a mismatch.

Not so fast, says Minnesota.

"I don't care if they're playing Minnesota or whoever, you're going to get their best effort every week," Lucia said. "They've had transition with their lineup, had some injuries. Three times they've lost when they've badly outshot their opponent. I think that kind of tells you what kind of team they have, maybe they just haven't had that puck luck so far this season.

"These are the kinds of weekends you want to play if you're an athlete. We're going to have a lot of young guys out there and it will be interesting to see how they perform."

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