The Gophers and Minnesota State Mankato men's hockey teams meet this weekend in a home-and-home series that carries plenty of weight, even this early in the season.
The Gophers (2-0) are ranked No. 2 in the U.S. College Hockey Online poll, while the Mavericks are No. 5. Adding to the intrigue: Minnesota State ended the Gophers' season last April, beating Minnesota 5-1 in the NCAA Frozen Four semifinals in Boston, a follow-up to their 4-0 ouster of the Gophers in the 2021 Loveland (Colo.) Regional final.
"We're not hiding from it,'' Gophers coach Bob Motzko said. "They've knocked us out two years in a row.''
If Motzko had his druthers, the series would be played later in the season, after he and his coaching staff have had more time to assimilate 11 highly talented freshmen into the lineup. Instead, the Gophers get last season's NCAA runner-up in Week 2 on Friday in Minneapolis and Saturday in Mankato.
"We've got four games to get ready for league play, and that's what we're looking at,'' Motzko said. "But is there a bigger meaning? Yeah, there's huge meaning for the PairWise [Rankings], and our guys know it. But my focus has to be straight on the team and how we get ready to play.''
The Gophers opened their season with a sweep of Division I newcomer Lindenwood by 4-0 and 6-4 scores last weekend. In the finale on Sunday, Minnesota trailed 3-2 and was tied 4-4 with the Lions early in the third period.
The series marked the Gophers debut of freshman forward Logan Cooley, who wasted no time in making an impression. The third overall pick by the Phoenix Coyotes in this year's NHL draft had a goal and two assists Saturday and an assist Sunday. He grabbed the attention of the coach that will try to stop him this weekend.
"Smart choice by the NHL team that selected him,'' MSU Mankato coach Mike Hastings said of Cooley. "Talented, hungry. He brings a lot of headaches to the opposing coach because you have to chase him around a 200-by-100-foot rink.''
Hastings and his Mavericks have produced headaches for opponents as of late. The Mavericks have won 152 games over the past five seasons, 39 more than the team with the next most victories, Minnesota Duluth. They've won five consecutive conference regular-season championships and last season had their first Hobey Baker Award winner in goalie Dryden McKay.
Hastings, whose team will play its opener Friday after falling 7-2 at Nebraska Omaha in an exhibition on Sunday, sees the series as a challenge and a chance to gauge his team against an opponent with similar NCAA tournament aspirations.
"In October, you start building your book of business for the NCAA tournament when you're playing your nonconference schedule, and so they're very important games,'' said Hastings, whose team faces No. 4 Minnesota Duluth and No. 10 St. Cloud State in the following two weekends. "… We're going to try and utilize everything we can as far as an opportunity to learn about us and try to get better.''
The Mavericks must replace McKay, who won an NCAA-record 38 games last season, had an NCAA-record 34 career shutouts and became only the third goalie to win the Hobey Baker. Also gone is forward Nathan Smith, who joined Knies and former Gophers center Ben Meyers as Olympians.
While Motzko stresses the process of improving and the need for his team to settle in, his players realize what it means to be facing Minnesota State, a team that has won four consecutive games and eight of the past 10 against the Gophers. Minnesota's freshmen are learning quickly about the rivalry.
"There's not really much to be said. They understand how much it means to us,'' sophomore forward Matthew Knies said of the newcomers, adding, "I kind of want to give it to Mankato this week.''