GRAND FORKS, N.D.--Ralph Engelstad Arena comes about as close to a palace as a hockey arena can.
And to the kings of this palace — which is complete with marble-topped concourses — nothing brings No. 2 North Dakota (17-6-2 overall, 12-4-0 WCHA) more joy than hosting the Minnesota men’s hockey team and inviting 12,000 or so of their subjects over for a weekend to watch maroon and gold bodies fly into the boards.
For the Gophers (10-9-3, 7-7-2) to silence the constant jeers that echoed throughout the arena, affectionately nicknamed “The Ralph,” they would have to strike early and often.
That’s just what they did on Friday when Mike Hoeffel sent a one-timer over Sioux goaltender Aaron Dell’s shoulder not 12 minutes into the game. Four minutes later, Jake Hansen extended the lead on the power play.
The jeers, the plastic “rage sticks” and the crowd fell silent to the point that a few sparse “Let’s Go Gophers” chants were heard in the crowd.
“We understand that we’re everyone’s rival,” Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said. “Like I told the guys, the game is played on the ice between the boards. The fans don’t have anything to do with what goes on the ice.”
Indeed, excluding the plastic Dr. Pepper bottle that came feet away from Nico Sacchetti in the waning seconds of the game, the crowd can’t act on their hate for the opposing team like the players can.
When Brad Malone sent the back of Kevin Wehr‘s head into the boards as time expired in the second period, a benches-clearing brawl broke out on center ice. Even backup goalie Jake Kremer found his way onto the ice to shove around the opposing reserve goaltender.
“It’s just coming to help for a teammate regardless,” Gophers winger Jacob Cepis said. “It was pretty crazy wasn’t it? I thought it was going to get really ugly there for a second.”
The ensuing penalties turned the penalty boxes into overstuffed sardine cans, and gave the Sioux a power play that led to the game-tying goal.
But the invading Gophers were able to answer the inevitable onslaught of Sioux offense with Saccehetti’s game-winner five minutes into the final period.
On the same day that senior Alex Kangas underwent season-ending surgery on a torn labrum, Kent Patterson held off the Sioux with 37 saves.
With Kangas out, the weight of the starting job lies squarely on Patterson’s shoulders. Patterson has already proven reliable in Kangas’ absence, and if there were any doubts about how he would handle the added weight of being the surefire starter, he silenced them Friday.
Minnesota followed the same strike-first formula Saturday night when Mark Alt’s swat from the blue line seemed to catch Dell off guard, giving the Gophers a 1-0 lead for the second night in a row.
But less than a minute later, Nick Larson coughed up the puck in his own zone for an easy North Dakota goal, and five minutes later, Malone added the game-winner during a 5-on-3 power play.
For all the excitement and drama of Friday, neither team seemed to gain any traction in the offensive zone, making for a sloppy 4-1 Gophers loss.
Coming off a winless weekend at the Mariucci Classic against non-conference foes two weeks ago, a split against a top-ranked team on foreign soil may come as a surprise to those in the stands, but not to those in the bench.
“We’re a good team,” Cepis said Friday, with a hint of irritation in his voice. “When you beat a team like that you deserve some credit.”
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