UND’s Stephane Pattyn waits for a faceoff with a Minnesota skater in a previous meeting. North Dakota will play the Gophers next week, despite not planning to meet again in the regular season until 2016-17. File photo.
The 315 miles stretching between Ralph Engelstad Arena and Mariucci Arena have been well-traveled — by dedicated fans in old green and white jerseys, by the occasional dead rodent soon to be tossed on the ice in front of rambunctious sea of fans, by the players of two college hockey programs that have carried on an unfading tradition.
A tradition until this season, at least.
With North Dakota’s move into the NCHC conference and Minnesota’s jump to the Big Ten, perhaps the most anticipated rivalry in college hockey was severed in the regular season until at least 2016-17.
But the rivals etched a new meeting place in their schedules this season, thousands of miles from their Midwest roots, in Philadelphia.
The city will play host to the top-four teams in the biggest stage of college hockey — and North Dakota and Minnesota happen to be playing against each other for a chance at competing for the national championship.
“I think with the conference realignments, it was different this year not facing our biggest rival,” junior Stephane Pattyn said. “But I think everyone in the back of their mind was hoping it would happen somewhere in the tournament, so why not one of the biggest games of our season?”
North Dakota’s chance to compete at the Frozen Four tournament and moving one step to the ultimate goal is only heightened by its opponent.
“Excitement, first of all, is something that’s in that dressing room,” senior captain Dillon Simpson said. “Guys are really happy with the opportunity we have and the chance we get to play an old rivalry game. It’s an exciting time for us.”
The excitement is grounded though, when UND knows it will have to prepare for a hard-working Minnesota team that has consistently proven itself all season — posting a 27-6-6 overall record and holding a place near the top of the rankings all season.
Union and Boston College will also join the rivals in the tournament, facing off against each other before North Dakota and Minnesota drop the puck at 7:30 p.m. on April 10 at Wells Fargo Center in hopes of advancing to the championship game April 12.
Since the 1940s, the teams have played each other in the regular season, and this year marks the fourth meeting between the rivals in the NCAA tournament in the past 10 years.
There’s a lot on the line. There’s also a boost of intensity that resonates from the matchup.
“I think you’ve got to try your best to approach it like any other game,” junior Mark MacMillan said. “But I think any time there’s a rivalry game, especially between us and the Gophers, there a little extra boost, no matter what. Whether it’s a regular season game or playing the Frozen Four in Philly, you’ve got to keep your wits about you and make sure you don’t get too hyped up about it. But there’s definitely always an extra boost when we play against the Gophers.”
As the lone club that didn’t gain a spot in the Frozen Four with a No. 1 ranking beside its name, North Dakota’s entrance as a No. 4 seed comes after its defeat of Midwest No. 1 seeded Wisconsin and a strong Ferris State team.
The team that bounced back from a 4-7-2 start doesn’t boast a winning column as long as the Gophers,’ but North Dakota’s resiliency has proved its determination.
“I think all year, we worked hard and prepared for this,” MacMillan said. “Our goal was to get to Philly and then win a national championship. We’re that much closer now. I don’t know if it’s so much as an underdog. I think it’s exciting to go there with the best teams in the country, and if you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.”
North Dakota made its last Frozen Four appearance in 2011, when it lost to Michigan. Minnesota has made a more recent visit two years ago and was sent home by Boston College.
The team that has been deemed the underdog is aware of what its up against.
“I don’t think anybody is really talking about our team,” UND coach Dave Hakstol said. “That’s justified. You take a look at the other teams here — most importantly the team we play — they’ve been the best team from start to finish. From October, they’ve been one of the top few teams and lead the nation in a few categories. They’re anchored by a Hobey Baker finalist goaltender. It goes top to bottom.
They’re fully justified in that No. 1 spot. They’ve earned it. For us, we know nobody is going pick us to win that game. We’re going to prepare real well to go in and play our game.”
North Dakota’s entrance into the tournament wasn’t made in a fashion that would have been expected — yet the way in which it happened makes the team believe it still has work to do.
“Whatever role they give us, we’re going to take,” sophomore Rocco Grimaldi said. “It doesn’t really matter if we’re the underdog or the top seed. As long as we’re in it, anything can happen.”
Elizabeth Erickson is the sports editor for The Dakota Student. She can be reached at [email protected]