Historically, the Gophers have been the dominant program in their rivalry with Minnesota-Duluth.
Minnesota leads the all-time series with the Bulldogs 129-72-15, but this weekend at Amsoil Arena the roles will be reversed.
“It’s a little strange,” Gophers senior Jake Hansen said of being considered an underdog in this upcoming series. “Obviously the University of Minnesota is supposed to be the premier program, and that’s what we’re trying to get back to this year.”
No. 14 Minnesota (2-0-0) is coming off yet another disappointing season in which it missed the NCAA tournament for a third consecutive year.
UMD, on the other hand, is the defending national champion and split a series with No. 1 Notre Dame last weekend.
“They seem to be pretty strong again this year,” sophomore defenseman Mark Alt said. “It’s always fun going up there anyways, but with them being the reigning national champs there’s a little more pressure and it should be even more fun this weekend.”
The Gophers exploded out of the gates this season. They scored 15 goals last weekend in two shutout victories against Sacred Heart.
Head coach Don Lucia said the 9-0 and 6-0 defeats mean nothing this weekend, though.
“It didn’t matter who we played last weekend,” Lucia said. “Now we’re going to go on the road, we’re going to play in a smaller sheet [of ice], and it’s going to be a whole different ballgame.
“We were 1-1-2 [against UMD] last year and I thought we played pretty well up at the Amsoil. It’s going to be a whole new experience for our kids. We are a young team.”
Minnesota’s youth may influence the series against No. 9 UMD (1-1-0).
The Gophers have no senior defensemen and only one junior in that group.
As a result, players like Alt have been thrust into leadership roles early in their tenure with Minnesota.
“We lost a couple seniors last year and had a bunch of freshmen come in this year, so it’s kind of like that quick transition and you feel like you’re veteran all of a sudden and I’m only a sophomore,” Alt said.
Lucia said he thinks defenseman Nate Schmidt has also taken a huge step from last year. He added he feels confident with the team’s top five defensemen at this point.
The Bulldogs will hope to exploit Minnesota’s inexperience on the backline and on the power play.
UMD converted on 23 percent of its power play opportunities last season.
Conversely, the Gophers penalty kill struggled last year, allowing 37 power play goals.
Lucia and Alt both stressed the importance of special teams play this weekend.
Minnesota is a perfect 9-for-9 on the penalty kill this season.
Lucia said the play of Kent Patterson will be key in this series at Duluth.
Patterson has yet to allow a goal this season. He earned the first and second shutouts of his career against Sacred Heart.
“I think it all starts with our goaltender,” Lucia said. “If [Patterson] can play like he did the second half of last year and like he has shown so far this year, that is a big piece of the puzzle.”
Hansen said he has seen a difference in his goaltender since he took over the starting job and knows he will play a pivotal role against the Bulldogs.
“He is a huge reason we went on a nice little run at the end of the year last season,” Hansen said. “We can’t expect [Patterson] to get two shutouts out there again [at UMD], but he’s definitely got a little swagger going for him right now. He should, because he is one of the best goalies in the country.”