The local sports spotlight this weekend, of course, will be on Gophers-Wisconsin football, and how could it not, with Saturday’s game for Paul Bunyan’s Axe deciding who advances to the Big Ten Championship Game? If the Gophers win, they’ll even keep alive their College Football Playoff hopes, and that’s a sentence that few people thought would be typed by a Minnesota writer entering the final weekend of November.
But even with ESPN’s “College GameDay’’ making its first visit to the U of M campus, there’s still some hockey that should steal your attention. Actually, there are a couple of outstanding college hockey matchups well worthy of your time.
That starts Thanksgiving Night and Black Friday (7 p.m., FSN both nights), when the Gophers men are host to North Dakota in what many consider the best rivalry in college hockey. The teams have combined for 13 NCAA championships (eight by UND, five by Minnesota), 43 Frozen Four berths (22-21, in favor of UND) and 69 NCAA tournament berths (37-32, Gophers).
What makes North Dakota’s trip to 3M Arena at Mariucci special is that these team’s haven’t met regularly since the Gophers were ripped out of the old WCHA when the Big Ten’s pooh-bahs put their stamp on college hockey. This is the Fighting Hawks’ first visit to Mariucci since the 2016-17 season, though the teams met two years ago in Grand Forks for a series, then in October 2018 in Las Vegas for the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game. The good news is that UND and the Gophers are playing the first installment of a four-year series. That’s a great start; now get this rivalry on the schedule every year.
If you venture to Mariucci for either game, you’ll see a North Dakota team that’s reasserting itself as a national power. After missing the past two NCAA tournaments, the Fighting Hawks are off to a 10-1-2 start and haven’t lost in nine games. They’ll be a mighty challenge for a Gophers team that’s making strides but still shows the growing pains of a roster that features nine freshmen playing regular roles.
Gophers vs. UND isn’t the only big series in the state this holiday weekend. There’s a strong argument to be made that Minnesota State at Minnesota Duluth on Friday (7 p.m., My9 Sports Network) and Saturday (7 p.m., FOX9-Plus) is even more important because it features the top-ranked Mavericks against the two-time defending national champion Bulldogs.
While there always will be skeptics of Minnesota State until it achieves NCAA tournament success, there’s no denying that the Mavericks have national championship potential. They’ve put together a 71-19-4 record over the past three years, including a 10-1-1 mark this season. Coach Mike Hastings has a deep, veteran group led by Marc Michaelis (six goals, nine assists, 15 points) and Parker Tuomie (5-6-11). Goalie Dryden McKay, last season’s NCAA newcomer of the year, owns a nation’s-best 1.17 goals-against average.
Minnesota Duluth, meanwhile, is trying to build the consistency it used to hang a second consecutive NCAA championship banners. The Bulldogs started the season 1-3 but are on a 6-1-1 run after a sweep of Colorado College last weekend. Defenseman Scott Perunovich continues to bolster his case for the Hobey Baker Award. The junior ranks third nationally with 20 points, and his 18 assists are tops among blue-liners. Senior goalie Hunter Shepard, 8-0 in the past two NCAA tournaments, is coming off a shutout that trimmed his GAA to 2.17.
What makes the Mavericks-Bulldogs matchup even better is their recent history. Their past three meetings have been decided by one goal, including that thrilling 2018 NCAA West Regional first-round matchup in Sioux Falls, S.D., in which UMD rallied from a two-goal deficit to win 3-2 in overtime.
Sure, it’s a big college football weekend. But don’t deprive yourself of some fine college hockey, too.