Minnesota and North Dakota combined for an emotionally-charged, thoroughly entertaining series of games last weekend with the Gophers winning both games, 2-0 on Friday and 3-2 on Saturday. It's still early in the season, with each team having only played six of their 28 league games, but the Gophers are already out to a perfect 6-0-0 start, while the Sioux are languishing in a tie for 10th place, with a 1-5-0 record in league play.
The first question people seem to be asking is if Minnesota is actually that good. At this point, I think the answer to that pretty clearly has to be yes. I had remained a bit skeptical just because of the level of their competition. But if North Dakota and Minnesota-Duluth(especially coming off a 3-pt weekend at Denver) aren't considered top tier teams in the WCHA, then who is? Colorado College is about the only school in the WCHA that has come close to looking as impressive as the Gophers have this season.
Both Gopher victories this past weekend, and a large key to their success much of the season boils down to two things. First, the Gophers have arguably the best top line in the country so far this season. Among the Gophers problems in recent years--and there were many--was the fact that they had a number of first round NHL draft picks, or near first picks, come through their program and not play like first round draft picks. That hasn't been the case with Nick Bjugstad and Zach Budish this year. Both look like they will be ready for the NHL next season. Add in the extremely high level Kyle Rau is playing at and you have a dominating line.
They combined for the first goal on Friday night, when Rau made an outstanding play, after getting knocked down, to still get a pass over to a wide open Bjugstad who buried the puck. On Saturday, Bjugstad opened the scoring, and Rau ended up netting the game winner when Budish drove hard to the net, drawing attention and creating space for Rau to slip in and bury the puck into an empty net. A few weeks ago, we discussed the possibility of Rau making the US World Junior team, but after seeing how great Bjugstad and Rau have been together, I think it needs to be a given at this point.
The other difference for the Gophers, especially this past weekend is just how good their fourth line has been. For as much talent as North Dakota has, their roster starts to look a little iffy as you get to the bottom of their lineup card. On Friday, it was Minnesota's Tom Serratore blowing past North Dakota's third defensive pairing for a breakaway goal that sealed the game. On Saturday, North Dakota was clinging to a 2-1 third period lead, but Minnesota's fourth line was able to generate the game-tying goal against North Dakota's fourth line and third defensive pairing. Minnesota has certainly had the talent to do that to other teams in the past, but for whatever reason, the effort just didn't seem to be there. This year, they've got that little extra spark that allows them to take advantage of that talent advantage.
Meanwhile, it might be time to ask if North Dakota is actually that bad. I doubt it. This wouldn't be the first instance in which the Sioux looked lackluster early in the season, only to turn things around in the second half of the season. Right now, I think the effects of all of North Dakota's unexpected departures are starting to take their toll. Their lineup would certainly look more intimidating with JT Miller and Colten St. Clair skating at forward rather than two unheralded converted defensemen.
There's no denying that North Dakota's top three forwards--Corban Knight, Danny Kristo, and Brock Nelson--are as good as anyone. But they have serious balance issues. Those three have combined for 13 out of North Dakota's 24 goals, and 32 out of the team's 61 points. North Dakota has had some amazing top lines in the past, but what has made them such a strong team was talented lines behind them that could also cause damage.
That's why the play of Rocco Grimaldi on Saturday night had to be so encouraging for North Dakota. After getting off to an shaky start due to a lower body injury, Grimaldi scored his first collegiate goal on Saturday in a 4-on-4 situation, and almost had a second on a beautiful move around a North Dakota defenseman. It was the first glimpse of what he might be capable of once he is fully healthy.