2014 Frozen Four: The extra cherry on top of the national championship sundae

Minnesota advanced Sunday to the Frozen Four...and a date to resume "The Rivalry" - Matt Christians

Realignment be damned - Minnesota and North Dakota finally meet this year in the Frozen Four semifinals to continue "The Rivalry."

It was a moment to celebrate. Minutes after Minnesota had completed its 4-0 shutout win Sunday night over St. Cloud State, the on-ice spillover continued in an Xcel Energy Center locker room. An entire season of work that began following last year's upset loss to Yale had culminated in a trip to Philadelphia for the Frozen Four, leaving the Gophers two wins away from the program's sixth NCAA men's hockey national title.

Minnesota winning the West Regional is always going to be worth the celebration. Going to the Frozen Four never gets old, according to head coach Don Lucia, whose 650th career win came against SCSU. Things have to go right over two games. Players have to be playing their best hockey in late March.

The latter is something that the Gophers believe happened. As sophomore defenseman Mike Reilly said, "We respected the opponent, but at the end of the game they were playing our game and we were pushing the pace. I think we had a great two games this weekend."

Still, the sundae that was winning the NCAA hockey regional had an extra cherry on the top. The day before, in that same locker room, the players turned on a television to watch the end of North Dakota-Ferris State. UND won in double overtime and Minnesota knew what was next. A win meant the Wells Fargo Center would host the newest chapter in college hockey's best rivalry next Thursday night (April 10, 2013) with a national championship appearance on the line.

If there is ever a cure for putting a smile on someone's face, asking a Minnesota or North Dakota player about "playing the other team" should be part of it without fail.

"I think once we found out it was North Dakota there was no way we were going to lose this game. That's who we wanted to play," said senior co-captain Nate Condon, whose line produced 5 goals in two games. "That's nice for me to go back to the WCHA like we used play. It's nice to see those teams again like we used to play all the time."

Over close to 300 games stretching back to 1930 or 1947-1948, depending on which school you ask - that can't even be cleanly decided - Minnesota-North Dakota is the type of rivalry which college hockey is made.

The Big Ten in all sports versus recent Division 1 upstart. The large city Gophers playing rural North Dakota. None of it matters, the game more than lives on single sport programs played in places like UND's 11K palace in Grand Forks. The pair is two of the bigger programs in college hockey and the top two in attendance this season. (The other Frozen Four semifinal, pitting one seeds Union and Boston College together also features a BCS school in a large city versus a smaller, private liberal arts school in Upstate New York).

It's the Hatfield-McCoys of college hockey.

While both programs have history, combining for 41 Frozen Four appearances, and enough bad blood with one another to fill a Youtube rabbit hole, realignment has kept the pair apart this season. No longer in the WCHA meant the end of regular season conference games that had happened for over 65 straight years.

Last year's 4-4 tie in Minneapolis was supposed to be the last time the Gophers and North Dakota (still officially without a nickname although the old Sioux logo remains adorned on banners and thousands of fan's shirts and sweaters) met in the regular season until 2016-17.

This season Minnesota joined the Big Ten and North Dakota the newly-formed NCHC.

"That's the one thing I miss about the WCHA, we lost some good rivals," said Minnesota junior Travis Boyd. "Losing NoDak - those games are always a blast."

North Dakota and Minnesota playing one another for now means that the games must come with postseason stakes. It almost happened last season with the two teams being placed in the same regional as the top two seeds. The fifth postseason match-up (and second since 2012) was postponed a year after fourth seed Yale upset the top seed Gophers before doing the same to UND en route to a national championship

This year North Dakota is the fourth seed which exceeded expectations. Head coach Dave Hakstol's squad needed conference tournament wins by Wisconsin, the team it defeated in the NCAA first round, and UMass-Lowell to get into the tournament for a 12th straight season after a 4-7-2 start that saw rock bottom with a 5-2 home loss to St. Lawrence on November 29th.

Since then, UND has turned things around going 21-6-1. Redshirt sophomore Rocco Grimaldi continues to be one of the more dynamic forwards, averaging a point per game (28) since November 30th and sophomore goaltender Zane Gothberg has a nation-best 1.71 GAA in that time (.05 higher than Minnesota's Adam Wilcox). He only allowed 3 goals on 66 shots last weekend.

What has been a key part of North Dakota's run to its sixth Frozen Four since Hakstol took over in 2004, however, is getting help throughout the team. This isn't a star-studded Kelly Green team and that's the point. Mark McMillan scored his tenth goal of the season to put UND ahead of Wisconsin with 1:44 remaining. Bottom-six forward Connor Gaarder did one better the next night, scoring the game-winner against the Bulldogs.

"You can probably tag a lot of words - some resiliency, a hard working team, a very determined team," Hakstol told USCHO.com. "It's a bunch of hard working guys that are having fun with each other. That's a pretty good formula this time of year. It kind of takes the pressure off a little bit.

The same is true for the players in Maroon and Gold, says Wilcox. It may be the one thing both teams can agree upon other than how great playing each other will be as the bonds of rivalry bring both together.

According to Wilcox, assistant coach Grant Potulny, himself a Grand Forks native and former Gopher, called the shot, telling the sophomore goalie that North Dakota and Minnesota would meet in the NCAAs. Wilcox, a Hobey Baker top ten finalist, responded with, "Yeah we probably would."

"It's what we want, it's a team we want to play and it's going to be a barn-burner," he added

Regardless, the fact that both teams are coming together after being apart this year to play each other is fitting. Even more so is the game happening away from Grand Forks and Minneapolis in a place nicknamed the "City of Brotherly Love."

For Mike Reilly, facing UND is an incentive. It comes with one extra caveat - Thursday's game is part 3 of a 4 step program to one thing greater. There is one more game after Thursday, which underneath the handshake line brawls, history, heroic overtime goals and bragging rights edges ahead.

As nice as beating North Dakota is for Minnesota, or beating Minnesota is for North Dakota, "The Rivalry" 'remains a stepping stone for both in the hunt for a national title.

"After we saw North Dakota won it, it gave us a little bit bigger of an itch to compete today and come out on top," he said. "Obviously it was tough to not be able to play them this year like in years past, but it's a great end to the season to play them like that.

"And hopefully we'll be playing on the last day of the year."

--

Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation. You can also follow him on Twitter --

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