Minneapolis, MN – It has certainly been the best of times for the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s hockey team recently.
Perennially mired in mediocrity, UMD’s fortunes have changed since winning their first NCAA championship at the Xcel Energy Center in the 2010-2011 season. Over the past 10 years, it would be hard to argue that any team has had more success on the ice than the Bulldogs, who have won three national championships and played in four straight Frozen Fours.
In stark contrast, the Minnesota Gophers have struggled over the past decade after having been consistently one of the best programs in the nation in years prior. The Gophers barely made the tournament in 07-08, and then missed the NCAAs for three-straight years. 2011-2012 through 2014-2015 was a strong stretch for Minnesota, who made the tournament all four years, including two Frozen Fours and a loss in the championship game in 13-14. Since 14-15, the Gophers have made the tournament just twice.
Perhaps equally frustrating to Minnesota fans over the last few down years is the team’s struggles against the other D1 programs in the state. The Gophers had won just one of their last 12 games against the Bulldogs coming into the weekend, and exiting the weekend Minnesota is now 1-12-1 in their last 14 against UMD.
If there was any question which team would come out with more jump in Friday night’s contest at Mariucci Arena, it was answered almost immediately. UMD took it to Minnesota right away Friday, jumping out to an early 2-0 lead and dominating the play in the first 10 minutes en route to a near 10-0 shot advantage. The Gophers did their best to stay in the game, scoring a late-period Mike Koster powerplay goal to cut the lead to just 2-1 going into the second.
The next goal was the most important one of the game, and unfortunately for the Gophers, UMD got it. The Bulldogs came out with jump again, scoring two goals in the first 10 minutes of the 2nd to build an insurmountable-feeling 4-1 lead. The Gophers again scored late in the period to get some life, with Matthew Knies scoring his third of the year to draw within two at 4-2 heading into the third.
Again, next goal was big, and Duluth got it, on a semi-controversial 5×3 opportunity to go up 5-2. Grant Cruikshank scored on the ensuing 5×4 penalty kill to again draw the Gophers within striking distance at 5-3, but like it had been the whole game, it was too little push, too late, and Minnesota lost by a 5-3 final score.
Coach Motzko wanted more from his upperclassmen after Friday, and they got a chance to respond in Saturday night’s rematch at Amsoil Arena in Duluth. The Gophers certainly came out stronger than they did Friday (although, that’s a pretty low bar), but UMD’s plan was to put shots on goal and crash the net, and they got two goals in the first period to control the game, and never gave up the lead. Minnesota finally started following UMD’s lead by shooting the puck and having skaters in and around the crease, and got a Mason Nevers goal midway through the third period to pull close at 2-1, but UMD’s Ryan Fanti was strong in net, stopping 28 of Minnesota’s 29 shots to preserve UMD’s 2-1 victory.
The Gophers look to get back on track against Notre Dame to open Big Ten action back home at Mariucci Arena. Friday is an 8PM start, while Saturday’s matchup starts at 5PM.