There was an increased sense of intensity that resonated throughout Mariucci Arena on Wednesday.
With a series against rival North Dakota on the horizon, the Gophers’ focus and preparedness in practice was unmistakable.
“Getting ready for North Dakota — I can’t even put it into words,” senior captain Taylor Matson said. “It comes down to just heart and will during these games.
“North Dakota-Minnesota is something special and it’s going to be fun with the atmosphere around here.”
Goalie Kent Patterson said he looks forward to this matchup every season.
“It’s one of those games you mark on your calendar every single year,” Patterson said. “Not only are we excited for it, but fans across Minnesota and North Dakota — everybody gets up for this weekend, and it’s going to be a fun environment.”
No. 5 Minnesota (7-1-0, 4-0-0 WCHA) will host the historic rivalry against the Fighting Sioux this weekend for the first time since Jan. 15-16, 2010.
The Gophers enter the series fresh off their best start since the 2001-02 season, when they started 11-0-2.
They also rank atop the WCHA with eight points this season, all coming on the road.
Forward Nick Bjugstad said the team cannot be satisfied with this fast start, though.
“I think definitely we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves,” Bjugstad said. “We’ve won some games, but it’s still early in the season and every team we play is good.”
No. 15 North Dakota (3-4-1, 1-3-0 WCHA) has stumbled out of the gates this season.
The defending MacNaughton Cup and Broadmoor Trophy champion is tied for ninth in the WCHA after being swept by Wisconsin on Oct. 21-22 and splitting a series with St. Cloud State last weekend.
The slow start won’t stymie their attack on both sides of the puck this weekend, according to head coach Don Lucia.
“I don’t care if North Dakota is going to be playing Minnesota or whoever — you’re going to get their best effort each and every game,” Lucia said.
Generally, series against the Fighting Sioux are more physical, which could trouble a Minnesota squad that has been prone to committing penalties at times.
In their only loss of the season to Vermont, the Gophers were plagued by undisciplined penalties that kept them on the penalty kill a majority of the game.
“Whenever you play North Dakota, they’re physical,” forward Zach Budish said. “We’ve got to be ready to match their intensity in the corners and in front of the net, but if they take penalties, we don’t need to retaliate.
“We’ve got to utilize our power play — it’s been one of our biggest strengths.”
The Gophers are a nation-best 14-for-39 with the man advantage on the season, amassing a 35.9 percent success rate.
Minnesota will look to exploit North Dakota’s penalty kill, which has allowed seven power play goals this season.
Minnesota also possesses the No. 1 offense in the nation, scoring at a clip of 5.38 goals per game.
Regardless of this season’s statistics, Lucia said he wants his team to focus on the most important stat this weekend — WCHA points.
“It’s just a battle for points this weekend,” Lucia said. “It doesn’t matter who you play, you better be ready to play to give yourself a chance to win.
“I think our guys have shown up to work and given a good effort each and every game, and they’ve given themselves a chance to win and that’s why we’re 7-1-0.”
Matson said overall records, statistics and national rankings will not matter in this series. He even went as far as to draw an unusual comparison for the pair of hockey games:
“It’s going to be a bloodbath out there, and we’re just looking forward to it,” Matson said. “It’s just something when you’re skating around in warm-ups and you’re looking over at them and they’ve got the green — we’re just out to kill this year.”
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