Frozen Four Preview: Minnesota vs. North Dakota
by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer
After a regular season in which North Dakota and Minnesota didn’t play each other for the first time in 66 years, it’s fitting, of course, that the two rival programs — among college hockey’s winningest all-time — will face off on Thursday night (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2) in the second national semifinal, the opportunity to play for the national championship on the line.
Storylines for Thursday’s primetime semifinal are plentiful, but beyond the historical implications of one of the most notable rivalries in the sport, the immediate reality is that Thursday’s game is much more about the present than the past — featuring two young but tested teams, two of the top goaltenders in the country, two highly respected head coaches, and a combined 15 freshmen who will experience this rivalry, already with 283 heated and spirited games in its history, for the first time.
While North Dakota was the No. 14 overall seed in the tournament, Minnesota enters the Frozen Four as the No. 1 overall seed after winning the first Big Ten regular-season title this year. Though the Gophers fell to Ohio State in the conference semifinals, they rebounded with resounding wins against Atlantic Hockey tournament champion Robert Morris (7-3) and NCHC regular season champion St. Cloud State (4-0) at the NCAA West Regional last weekend.
And in the regional final, sophomore goaltender Adam Wilcox stopped 24 shots for his fourth shutout of the season.
“Offensively, they've got a lot of weapons that can score,” said North Dakota senior captain Dillon Simpson of the Gophers. “From what I've seen on tape, great team defense. Great goaltending as well on their side. ... We're going to have to have our best effort if we're going to have a chance to win.”
Wilcox — 25-5-6 with a 1.89 goals-against average and .934 save percentage — will be the third consecutive Hobey Baker finalist goaltender whom North Dakota will face, having beaten Joel Rumpel (Wisconsin) and C.J. Motte (Ferris State) in succession last weekend to win the Midwest Regional as the No. 4 seed in Cincinnati.
It’s the first time in NCAA history that a team has to beat three netminders among the 10 Hobey finalists in the same postseason, and the challenge of facing Wilcox isn’t lost on North Dakota.
“We need to get shots through, really get in his face a little bit, not let him see the puck, and hopefully get a few lucky bounces,” said freshman defenseman Paul LaDue, who had three assists last weekend to bring his scoring total to 21 points.
Of course, North Dakota’s goaltender is no slouch, either. Zane Gothberg, also a sophomore, made a career-high 44 saves in last Saturday’s double-overtime win against Ferris State, a game in which North Dakota was outshot by a 27-9 margin after the second period. And since November 30, paralleling his team’s success, Gothberg has won 18 of 23 games, leading the nation during that stretch in goals-against average (1.71) and save percentage (.934). His shutout in the third-place game of the NCHC tournament, against Western Michigan, set the stage for North Dakota’s at-large berth, an opportunity of which they’ve taken full advantage.
With Wilcox and Gothberg in opposing nets, and in a game that doesn’t feature a player who averaged a point per game this season, goals may be at a premium — for each team — on Thursday night.
“He's been one of our best, if not our best player, for our last five games,” said LaDue of Gothberg. “He's been incredible back there. Obviously he's kept us in games a few times. In the first period on Saturday night he had to make some big saves, and that really helped us. Any time we can help him out blocking shots and keeping the puck out of his area, and hopefully we can do that this week.”
Blocking shots has become a staple for this North Dakota team and leading the way in that regard has been Simpson, who paced the nation in blocked shots this season (107). His partner on the blueline, St. Louis Blues first-round draft pick Jordan Schmaltz, is second on the team with 58.
Trying to navigate the shooting lanes in the North Dakota defensive zone will be an accomplished and potent Minnesota offense led by freshman Justin Kloos, who scored three of his team-leading 15 goals last weekend, and a top line featuring juniors Kyle Rau and Sam Warning (leading the team with 37 and 32 points, respectively), and freshman Hudson Fasching.
Rau, who has goals in seven of his last nine games, including three straight, had eight points in six games as a freshman against North Dakota, though was held without a point in the last meetings between the teams, a two-game series in Minneapolis in January 2013.
“I love playing North Dakota,” said Minnesota senior forward Nate Condon. “Every time we played them, it was always a really fun game, it's always physical, up and down the ice… One of the great things about this is that there's no motivation needed.”
Added his head coach Don Lucia, “Certainly the excitement is there because you've got two brand name schools, you've got two outstanding programs and fan bases. From that standpoint, there’s excitement. But the excitement is getting to Philadelphia and playing in the Frozen Four.”
And so all that’s left, now, is for all the matchups — between Wilcox and Gothberg, between the likes of Rocco Grimaldi and Rau — to be settled on the ice at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center on Thursday night.
And with the exception of the 1979 national championship game between these teams, the stakes have rarely been higher.
“I know that [we] wanted another piece of these guys one more time,” said North Dakota’s Grimaldi, his team’s leading scorer. “But we can't let this rivalry play too much of a role. We're in this for one reason and one reason only... And that's to win a championship.”
As is Minnesota. And the winner of Thursday’s semifinal will get that chance on Saturday night.