NCAA West Regional Preview: UND vs. Minnesota

It’s interesting to hear fans of both schools claiming the “underdog” label in advance of today’s West Regional Final at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

From the Minnesota side: UND is the higher seed, they’re hot right now, and they just throttled the Gophers nine days ago, scoring six unanswered goals on their way to a third consecutive WCHA Final Five championship.

From the North Dakota side: Minnesota is playing at home, they won the MacNaughton Cup as WCHA regular season champions, and they’re hopping mad after allowing six unanswered goals in the WCHA Final Five semifinals.

I think that both sides are attempting to limit expectations and soften the blow in case their favorite team comes out on the losing end of this latest chapter in a long and storied rivalry.

As I sat at Xcel Energy Center last weekend and watched both halves of the same hockey game, I remarked that these two schools have got to find a way to continue playing each other. It’s important for both sides to put aside pride and personal politics and reach a schedule agreement, one that has each school traveling to the other in alternate years. It’s good for the fans, it’s good for each program, and it’s good for the sport.

After not meeting in the national tournament for 25 years (1980-2004), Sunday’s regional final will mark the third NCAA playoff game between North Dakota and Minnesota over the past eight seasons. UND defeated Minnesota 4-2 in the 2005 Frozen Four semifinals and claimed a 3-2 overtime victory over the Golden Gophers to advance to the 2007 Frozen Four.

More recently, the Fighting Sioux dispatched Minnesota in the first round of the 2010 WCHA playoffs by a combined score of 12-5.

Minnesota can claim a 2007 WCHA Final Five championship victory over North Dakota. Gopher fans will remember Blake Wheeler’s overtime winner, while fans of the Green and White prefer to remember Chris Porter’s sudden death tally eight days later, ending Minnesota’s season and propelling UND to the Frozen Four.

All told, North Dakota is 6-2 in the last eight playoff meetings (WCHA and NCAA) between the teams.

One overlooked factor heading into the West Regional final is that North Dakota will have the last line change as the higher seed. With all of the TV timeouts, Minnesota’s depth will not be as much of a factor as it was during the regular season.

Minnesota Team Profile

Head Coach: Don Lucia (13th season at Minnesota, 317-172-54, .634)
Pairwise Ranking: t-6th
National Rankings: #6/#6
This Season: 27-13-1 overall, 20-8-0 WCHA (1st)
Last Season: 16-14-6 overall (missed NCAA tournament), 13-10-5 WCHA (5th)

Team Offense: 3.63 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.22 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 23.2% (42 of 181)
Penalty Kill: 80.7% (146 of 181)

Key Players: Sophomore F Erik Haula (19-28-47), Freshman F Kyle Rau (18-24-42), Sophomore F Nick Bjugstad (25-16-41), Sophomore D Nate Schmidt (3-37-40), Sophomore D Mark Alt (5-17-22), Senior G Kent Patterson (27-13-1, 2.24 GAA, .910 SV%, 7 SO)

North Dakota Team Profile

Head Coach: Dave Hakstol (8th season at UND, 213-105-30, .655)
Pairwise Ranking: 3rd
National Rankings: #4/#4
This Season: 26-12-3 overall, 16-11-1 WCHA (4th)
Last Season: 32-9-3 overall (NCAA Frozen Four semifinalist), 21-6-1 WCHA (1st)

Team Offense: 3.24 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.51 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 22.3% (40 of 179)
Penalty Kill: 81.2% (134 of 165)

Key Players: Junior F Danny Kristo (18-26-44) Junior F Corban Knight (16-24-40), Sophomore F Brock Nelson (28-18-46), Freshman D Nick Mattson (6-13-19), Senior D Ben Blood (3-18-21), Junior G Aaron Dell (18-9-2, 2.58 GAA, .903 SV%, 2 SO)

By The Numbers

Last meeting: March 16, 2012 (St. Paul, MN). Minnesota took three of four games from North Dakota in the regular season and appeared poised to advance to the WCHA Final Five title game, leading UND 3-0 midway through the middle period. But the Fighting Sioux rattled off six unanswered goals, left the Gophers shell-shocked, and ensured that Xcel Energy Center would be green for St. Patrick’s Day the following night.

Last meeting in the NCAA tournament: March 25, 2007 (Denver, CO). Minnesota had defeated UND eight days earlier to win the WCHA Final Five on Blake Wheeler’s diving overtime winner, but North Dakota got the last laugh. Chris Porter scored on a wraparound (Michael Parks, anyone?) midway through the first overtime and the Fighting Sioux were on their way to the Frozen Four. Ryan Duncan and Robbie Bina also scored for the Green and White and Phillippe Lamoureux stopped 27 of 29 Gopher shots.

Most important meeting: March 24, 1979 (Detroit, MI). North Dakota and Minnesota met to decide the national championship, and the Gophers prevailed, 4-3.

All-time: Minnesota leads the all-time series by a slim margin, 136-130-14 (.511), but North Dakota has won six of the past eight playoff meetings (WCHA and NCAA) between the two teams.

Recent history: Each team has won five of the last ten games between the schools, and the teams have split four games at Xcel Energy Center.

Game News and Notes

Dave Hakstol is 17-12-3 against Minnesota in his head coaching career. UND junior goaltender Aaron Dell is 13-0 in the month of March. In an effort to alleviate parking concerns, Minnesota fans are asked to park in St. Cloud and walk to Xcel Energy Center.

The Prediction

Just like last Friday night, tonight’s contest will be decided by special teams, goaltending, and momentum. If North Dakota has any edge at all, it’s in the faceoff circle. No matter which way this game goes down, it will add yet another chapter to one of the greatest rivalries in all of college sports. I see this one as a tight game either way, with an empty netter sealing it at the end. If UND head coach Dave Hakstol had more than one timeout at his disposal. I would go with North Dakota. As it is, however, I think Minnesota takes this one and gets their crack at Boston College in the Frozen Four. MN 5, UND 3.

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