Freshoff back-to-back angst-filled series against NorthDakota and Wisconsin, the Gophers face yet another rival this weekend: St. Cloud State.
Minnesota plays the Huskies in St. Cloud on Friday and then returns home to Mariucci Arena to play them Saturday.
Minnesota defenseman Nate Schmidt is particularly familiar with the in-state rivalry.
Schmidt, a sophomore, is a native of St. Cloud and will return home this weekend for the first time in his Gophers uniform.
“I grew up watching this series since I could walk,” Schmidt said. “It’s going to be an emotional game.”
Schmidt played his high school hockey at St. Cloud Cathedral and earned all-Wright County Conference honors in each of his three years with the team.
He was also an all-state honoree in his final year with St. Cloud Cathedral.
Despite growing up in St. Cloud, Schmidt chose to attend Minnesota and has flourished in his second year with the Gophers.
He has 13 points on the season and leads the team with 12 assists.
Schmidt did not hide his excitement Wednesday for the upcoming series.
“It doesn’t get much better than this — in-state rivalry against your old buddies for the stakes as high as they are. I can’t ask for much more,” he said.
Regardless of the emotion Schmidt brings to this series, head coach Don Lucia said he doesn’t want his sophomore defenseman to “make it more than it is” this weekend.
The weekend is unusual in that it’s a home-and-home series, meaning each team will host a game.
This may come as a relief for the Gophers, who have played three of their first four WCHA series on the road.
“It’s never too much fun to travel,” senior forward Jake Hansen said. “Obviously it’s nice to sleep in your own bed and get more rest.
He added: “St. Cloud is not too bad of a drive, but it will be nice knowing that Saturday we don’t have to get on a bus after the game.”
No. 1 Minnesota (10-2-0, 7-1-0 WCHA) has seen success on the road this season, with its only road loss coming in the series split of the Badgers last weekend at the Kohl Center.
SCSU, on the other hand, is 2-5-0 away from home, but enters this series after a split with Minnesota State last weekend in Mankato.
The Huskies have been plagued by injuries early in the season. Senior captain Drew LeBlanc and starting goaltender Mike Lee have gone down with long-term lower bodyinjuries.
Minnesota will look to exploit Lee’s replacement, freshman Ryan Faragher, this weekend.
“I know they’ve been having goalie issues, which could be an advantage for us if we can just get shots on net and pepper their goalie,” Hansen said. “If we get traffic in front of him, and we keep peppering him all night, we feel like eventually whatever goalie we’re going to play, they’re going to break.”
Though SCSU (5-5-2, 3-2-1 WCHA) has struggled with injuries, its penalty kill has been coming on lately.
The Huskies have allowed 11 power-play goals this season but held Minnesota State to one goal with the man advantage last weekend.
Conversely, the Gophers power play has cooled off after starting the season as the most potent unit in the nation.
Lucia said he wants to see his team crashing the net more with the man advantage and work to get what he called “dirty goals.”
“It’s not like teams do a whole lot different,” Lucia said of the opposing penalty kill. “It’s still about execution [for us]. It’s still about trying to create a two-on-one. It’s still about trying to deliver pucks to the net.”
Schmidt agreed that the team needs to get more pucks through to the net and said he is eager for his second in-state rivalry of the season.
“I think the in-state rivalries are the biggest part of what makes college hockey … what it is,” Schmidt said. “It gets people excited. It’s the reason why we play. It’s the reason why I wanted to come to the University of Minnesota here and get everyone’s best shot.”