Over the long grind of a hockey season, it's easier for players to focus on the task at hand rather than look ahead. Ask one about next weekend and you're more than likely to hear the old adage of "taking it one game at a time" shoehorned somewhere in there.
But in the case of North Dakota, players are willing to talk just as much as fans.
"It means a lot," Minnesota defenseman Nate Schmidt said about playing North Dakota moments following the Gophers' 7-1 win over Alaska-Anchorage. "Our whole season last year we them seven or six times, I can't remember."
You can excuse Schmidt for not being sure how many games the two teams played - for the record it was six - because every game has the action of two. The action, the pace, the physicality of the rivalry is such to where when UND defenseman Ben Blood and Minnesota forward, Kyle Rau started the second line brawl in recent years in Grand Forks last season, no one was surprised. That's just what happens when these two teams get together for college hockey's best rivalry.
Unfortunately, this weekend is the last time the Gophers and North Dakota will for a while. With the team-formerly-known-as-the-Fighting-Sioux (UND dropped their historic nickname last year following a long battle with the NCAA) heading to the newly-formed NCHC and Minnesota joining the Big Ten, it is the last regular season series between the two until 2016-2017 at the earliest.
"I think it's one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports," North Dakota senior defenseman Joe Gleason told the Grand Forks Herald this week. "I'm lucky enough to be a part of it. I'd be lying if I said my emotions aren't high."
Differences show the vast landscape of college hockey
At the heart of the rivalry, Minnesota and North Dakota are two teams that sum the vast landscape of college hockey. An urban university against one that is rural. One school plays other sports in a BCS conference while the other has spent most of its history in Division 2. A team that is full of Canadians versus one that prides itself on being composed primarily from Minnesota natives.
Even their rinks are different. UND has an NHL-sized rink with a few bells and whistles the pros don't have. Minnesota's Mariucci Arena, meanwhile, features an Olympic-sized rink that forgoes a goal horn in lieu of the Gopher band.
With so many differences off the ice, it's fitting that one of the similarities both fanbases share is their disdain for one another. Both enjoy needling the other with nicknames like the "Goofers," "Whioux," or pointing out national championships. That continues with the games themselves, which take on the importance of a title fight. Each team had bragging rights last year between Minnesota sweeping UND, a third-period comeback by North Dakota to defeat the Gophers in the WCHA Final Five en route to their third straight Broadmoor Trophy and the Gophers getting revenge in the West Regional Final.
"Yeah you know we wanted to get that last game out of our system against North Dakota," former Minnesota captain Taylor Matson following the regional win in March. "Words don't describe North Dakota. If you can't get up for them, you can't get up for anything."
Success and history drive both sides
Rivalries are fueled in geography and history and Minnesota and North Dakota, who are five hours apart by car, have both. The two universities from neighboring states have played each other more than any other school - this weekend will be the 289th and 290th meetings all-time - and have met in the NCAA Tournament 3 times since 2005.
What really gets every fan and player amped for Minnesota versus North Dakota, however, is the success and tradition of both schools. It would be enough to have a rivalry based on two teams playing for years, but these two universities are two of the most successful hockey programs historically. Both fanbases embrace their tradition - it is common to see Gopher and Sioux jerseys from the 1950s at either Mariucci or Ralph Engelstad Arena - and most games played between UND and the Gophers have some stake in the WCHA.
(Even people from outside the Midwest get it. I remember talking with a couple writers from Boston during the West Regional Final last year and they commented on how the physicality compared with Boston University-Boston College.)
This year is no different. Both teams are in the top-ten in the Pairwise rankings, which decide who gets into the NCAA Tournament and are tied for third in the WCHA standings (albeit both have games in hand over first and second).
"I think that this next weekend is going to really tell where we're at in the standings," said Schmidt last Saturday."
At the same time, it isn't hard to imagine the same thing being said 50 years ago. Sure the rinks wouldn't be as nice and the television coverage would pale in comparison to today's high-definition, but the heart of the rivalry remains the same: two successful teams that share a border wanting to prove their dominance over the other.
The end...for now
This weekend's final WCHA regular season series marks the end of a cycle that continued to repeat itself. Players and coaches, just like fans, have grown up watching UND-Minnesota games before participating in the battles that the next generation of Gopher and North Dakotans will watch. Choosing a favorite memory from the rivalry is almost impossible because there are so many to choose. From Robbie Bina's 180 foot goal to Blake Wheeler's Final Five winner (both in 2007) to bench-clearing brawls and big hits to national championships, so many moments stick out.
"I love this series," North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol told the Herald. "It brings out the very best in everybody. It challenges everybody to be their best."
And there is something to that. UND enters this weekend with two of the top scorers in the nation in Corban Knight (31 points) and Danny Kristo (30) that will need to be contained. Knight, a face-off wizard, is on a 17-game scoring streak and will be facing a freshman goalie in Adam Wilcox. The Minnesota goalie leads the WCHA with a 1.65 GAA but has never played North Dakota. If they can limit Minnesota's puck possession and get the Gophers off their game with physical play and an early deficit, this could be a long weekend.
The Gophers, meanwhile, have firepower of their own as they enter this weekend on an 8 game unbeaten streak . They lead the nation in total offense with 3.82 goals per game (North Dakota is sixth with 3.45) and could be getting a boost with center Erik Haula returning. The Minnesota Wild prospect has missed three games with an "upper body injury" and will be a game-time decision according to head coach Don Lucia. Having him back along with Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau, who scored his first collegiate hat trick Saturday, gives Minnesota depth in their top-9 that can be spread throughout multiple lines. Few teams, including UND, are able to match.
At the end of the day, these two games will be a semicolon on the long and storied rivalry that is Minnesota-North Dakota. Although college hockey loses out on one of its marquee events with realignment, both head coaches have made mentioned getting the series resumed at the "first available opportunity." Whether or not the hiatus turns a once fierce rivalry into hockey's version of Penn State-Pittsburgh or Nebraska-Oklahoma remains to be seen. There is no guarantee non-conference games will have the same feeling although I'd like to think the couple years off will only intensify things for the next time UND and Minnesota meet; possibly in the playoffs.
Boston has four teams playing for a Beanpot, Colorado fights over a Gold Pan and the state of Michigan battles over the GLI. Minnesota and North Dakota don't need to fight for a trophy when bragging rights will do. It's a feeling that Kyle Rau sums up well.
"I'm so excited, it's rivalry weekend. It doesn't get much better than that. I'm ready to go."
Minnesota (16-3-3, 8-3-3 WCHA) and North Dakota (13-6-3, 8-3-3 WCHA) face each other tonight and tomorrow (January 18th and 19th) at Mariucci Arena. Friday's game begins at 7:00 p.m. CT while Saturday's starts at 5:00 p.m. as part of Hockey Day Minnesota. Both will be broadcast on Fox Sports North.
Nathan Wells is a college hockey writer and reporter for Western College Hockey and College Hockey News. You can follow him on Twitter @gopherstate.