In the past ten days, we’ve had plenty of time to discuss the Minnesota/North Dakota rivalry, the history of the two schools, and the 283 games played up until this point. I’ve written countless articles, kept tabs on what fans on both sides are saying in fan forums and on Twitter, and took part in a phone interview with the Associated Press for an article which appeared in the New York Times.

I’ve discussed how I’m pleased that the two schools have reached a schedule agreement and will resume the rivalry three seasons from now. North Dakota will head to Mariucci Arena during the 2016-17 season, and the Gophers will return the favor the following year (dates for each series have not been announced).

I’ve written about the twelve titles that the two teams have earned and how, for both programs, the future may be even brighter than the present. I’ve been asked countless times about the teams, the coaches, the players, and my predictions for the 2014 Frozen Four in Philadelphia.

And after all of that, it’s time to focus on tonight’s game.

Minnesota has been on top of the college hockey world for the entire season. The Gophers have won 27 games this year (against just six losses) and steamrolled through the first season of the Big Ten with a 14-3-3 record. The U of M is back in the Frozen Four for the fifth time in Don Lucia’s fifteen seasons behind the Gopher bench.

As I said in my article about the Gophers’ young roster, Minnesota has just four senior skaters – forwards Nate Condon and Tom Serratore, and defensemen Justin Holl and Jake Parenteau. The quartet has appeared in a combined 138 games this season, potting 12 goals and collecting 34 assists. It’s really been the other three classes that have made this team go. The six juniors have scored 53 goals in 2013-14, and, remarkably, the eight freshmen have potted 56.

Minnesota sophomore netminder Adam Wilcox has been even better this season than last. It is astonishing that the Hobey Baker finalist already has 50 wins to his credit (with seven shutouts). Incidentally, Michigan’s Marty Turco (1995-98) holds the record for career goaltending victories with 127.

The end of the regular season had its share of hiccups for Don Lucia’s group. The Gophers went just 6-4-1 down the stretch, losing to Ohio State in their first ever Big Ten tournament game. The Maroon and Gold rebounded in the West Regional (St. Paul, MN), throttling Robert Morris 7-3 and St. Cloud State 4-0.

Many people are saying that the Gophers’ most recent game was their most complete, well-played game of the season. If there was any program that wanted to get right back to playing, it would be Minnesota. It will be interesting to see whether the extended layoff has any effect on the team’s performance in Philadelphia.

North Dakota’s second-half surge has been well documented, but there are some underlying reasons why things turned around last December. Junior forwards Mark MacMillan and Brendan O’Donnell missed a combined eleven games due to injury, and their return has solidified the lineup. UND routinely plays three freshman defensemen (Troy Stecher, Paul LaDue, and a platoon of Gage Ausmus/Keaton Thompson), and those rookie blueliners have come a long way since the beginning of the year. And sophomore Zane Gothberg has solidified the goaltending situation after splitting time with senior Clarke Saunders in October and November. Saunders did step in for five games while his teammate was battling back from injury, but it’s been Gothberg’s crease since then.

Dave Hakstol has his team back in the Frozen Four for the sixth time in his ten seasons behind the UND bench. North Dakota played a couple of tight contests at the Midwest Regional (Cincinnati, OH), toppling former WCHA foe Wisconsin 5-2 with two empty net goals before finding a way to win against Ferris State. The Bulldogs outshot UND 26-8 over a forty minute stretch before Conner Gaarder netted the game winner in the second overtime session. The aforementioned Gothberg, who hails from Thief River Falls, Minnesota (hometown of Ralph Engelstad) stopped 44 of 45 shots in the 2-1 victory.

One question mark for tonight is how the game will be officiated. I don’t think UND wants to play a game with six power plays on each side. As always, goaltending will be huge, and both Wilcox and Gothberg have the ability to take over a game. And a final point is how the fans will support one team or the other. I’m not talking about how many Minnesota or North Dakota fans will be there. I’m wondering if fans of Boston College and Union (who play in Thursday’s first semifinal) will embrace the underdog and get behind the Green and White.

The winner of this matchup will move on to Saturday’s championship game to face either the Boston College Eagles or the Union Dutchmen. I’ve written a full preview of that matchup as well.

Minnesota Team Profile

Head Coach: Don Lucia (15th season at Minnesota, 371-188-65, .647)

National Ranking: #1
This Season: 27-6-6 overall, 14-3-3 Big Ten (1st)
Last Season: 26-9-5 overall (NCAA West Regional semifinalist), 16-7-5 WCHA (t-1st)

Team Offense: 3.51 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.00 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 20.2% (34 of 168)
Penalty Kill: 82.9% (107 of 129)

Key Players: Junior F Kyle Rau (14-23-37), Junior F Sam Warning (12-20-32), Junior F Travis Boyd (9-22-31), Freshman F Justin Kloos (15-15-30), Freshman F Hudson Fasching (13-16-29), Sophomore D Mike Reilly (9-23-32), Sophomore D Brady Skjei (6-7-13), Sophomore G Adam Wilcox (25-5-6, 1.89 GAA, .934 SV%, 4 SO)

North Dakota Team Profile

Head Coach: Dave Hakstol (10th season at UND, 260-132-40, .648)

National Ranking: #5
This Season: 25-13-3 overall, 15-9-0-0 NCHC (2nd)
Last Season: 22-13-7 overall (NCAA West Regional finalist), 14-7-7 WCHA (3rd)

Team Offense: 3.07 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.44 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 17.4% (32 of 184)
Penalty Kill: 83.3% (145 of 174)

Key Players: Sophomore F Rocco Grimaldi (17-22-39), Sophomore F Michael Parks (12-18-30), Junior F Mark MacMillan (10-16-26), Sophomore F Drake Caggiula (11-13-24), Freshman F Luke Johnson (8-13-21), Senior D Dillon Simpson (7-15-22), Sophomore D Jordan Schmaltz (6-17-23), Sophomore G Zane Gothberg (20-9-3, 1.99 GAA, .926 SV%, 3 SO)

By The Numbers

Last meeting: January 19, 2013 (Minneapolis, MN). North Dakota twice saw two-goal leads vanish at Mariucci Arena in the last meeting between the two teams as WCHA foes, a 4-4 tie. Nick Bjugstad and Nate Condon scored third period goals for the Gophers to send the game to overtime, and the teams combined for just one shot on net in the extra frame. Zane Gothberg made 31 saves for UND, while Adam Wilcox turned aside 22 shots.

Last meeting in the NCAA tournament: March 25, 2012 (St. Paul, MN). The Gophers got multi-point efforts from Travis Boyd, Zach Budish, and Nate Condon in a 5-2 win over North Dakota in the West Region final at Xcel Energy Center. Minnesota somewhat atoned for the “timeout game” in the WCHA Final Five one week earlier, when the Fighting Sioux spotted the Maroon and Gold three goals before exploding for six of their own. The Gophers advanced to the Frozen Four, suffering a 6-1 defeat at the hands of Boston College in the national semifinals.

Most important meeting: March 24, 1979 (Detroit, MI). North Dakota and Minnesota met to decide the national championship, and the Gophers prevailed, 4-3. Neal Broten scored the game-winning goal for the U of M, and Steve Janaszak was named the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament.

All-time: Minnesota leads the all-time series by a slim margin, 138-130-15 (.514). Each team has won eight of the sixteen meetings on neutral ice. The teams first met in 1948.

All-time in the NCAA playoffs: The teams have split their previous four meetings in the national tournament. Minnesota won the 1979 title with a 4-3 victory over North Dakota, and also took down UND 5-2 in the 2012 West Region final. Dave Hakstol has defeated the Gophers twice in NCAA play. Chris Porter’s wraparound goal in overtime sent the Fighting Sioux to the 2007 Frozen Four with a 3-2 victory in the West Region final, and the Green and White also got the better of Minnesota in the 2005 Frozen Four semfinal. Erik Fabian and Travis Zajac each scored twice in North Dakota’s 4-2 win.

Last ten: The Gophers have gone 6-3-1 in the last ten meetings between the schools, outscoring UND 33-25 in those games.

Game News and Notes

Dave Hakstol is 17-14-4 against Minnesota in his head coaching career. The Gophers are 19-0-2 when leading after one period of play but just 3-4-2 when trailing after the opening twenty minutes. North Dakota is 8-3-0 in one goal games this season. In an effort to alleviate parking concerns, Minnesota fans are asked to park in Pittsburgh and walk to the Wells Fargo Center.

The Prediction

UND seems to have embraced the underdog role in this year’s Frozen Four. If head coach Dave Hakstol can get the boys playing fast and loose, they could be a handful for the Gophers. I don’t see much scoring early, as both squads feel each other out and try to avoid mistakes and turnovers. I feel more excited than nervous about this one, and that’s always a good sign. I’ll take the Green and White in a close one. North Dakota 3, Minnesota 2