Minnesota (11-7-2, 2-2-2-0 Big Ten) will make the long trek from Minneapolis to St. Paul this this weekend to figure out the best college hockey team in Minnesota* in the second annual North Star College Cup.
Just as importantly, the defending champion Gophers will have to figure out the number one team in the nation.
"You look around the state and there are some pretty good teams in our state," said Kyle Rau. "It's good for the fans, it's good for the players because we grew up playing against each other. It's fun to see each other in other uniforms and play at the X."
Minnesota's first game in the quest to keep the trophy that I like to think is Paul Bunyan's pimp chalice is Friday night at 7:00 p.m. CT against Minnesota State (18-4-1, 15-2-1 WCHA). The WCHA-leading Mavericks are atop the Pairwise, polls and the SB Nation power rankings, and are presently in position to reach a place for the first time which every other Minnesota school has already - the Frozen Four.
Minnesota State has lost once in a span of 15 games that stretches to November 7th. With 14 upperclassmen, the Mavericks have experience and head coach Mike Hastings' team is 3rd in the nation in total offense (averaging 3.74 goals per game) with plenty of depth.
"They have some real high-end forwards and they have forward depth," Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said about Minnesota State. "I think that's one thing when you look at their lineup, they are deep offensively."
Junior goaltender Stephon Williams has rebounded from a sophomore slump to post numbers in line with his WCHA Rookie of the Year performance. Williams has posted a .922 save percentage in 18 games. The Mavericks defense has played well around him, giving up less than 2 goals per game when Williams is in net.
For the Gophers, currently out of the NCAA Tournament (18th in the Pairwise) and continuing to get better, playing the #1 team (and top-ten Minnesota-Duluth for a fourth time this year if that happens) for in-state bragging rights is a great way to do so.
Although Minnesota is the team chasing number one instead of the other way around, nothing has changed in terms of preparation.
"Its just another game," Travis Boyd said. "We're not looking at it being like 'hey, we're playing the number one team in the land.'
"Let's show them why the Gophers are the best in the state."
TV and Game Times/Shootout Note
Minnesota's game time Saturday will depend on how Friday night goes. The winner of Minnesota-Minnesota State faces the winner of Bemidji State-UMD at 7:00 p.m. The two losers play Saturday at 4:00 p.m. CT. Both Saturday games will air on the main FSN.
As a change for year #2, the championship game will have a winner. The first three games will be decided by a shootout if regulation and 5 minutes of overtime are not enough. For the championship, a 20 minute overtime period will decide.
The change puts the North Star in line with the Beanpot out in Boston and NCAA Tournament.
Oddly enough, the Gophers won a championship shootout - continuing solid play inside Xcel Energy Center, a building where the team has also advanced to 2 Frozen Fours in 3 years - against Minnesota-Duluth in 2014. It's the only time Minnesota has won one in eight attempts during the Big Ten era. I spoke with Adam Wilcox about this subject and hope to have more on this later in the week.
Both games Friday will air on Fox Sports North+. As a bonus, the Minnesota women's hockey team faces St. Cloud State at 3:00 p.m. CT Friday on the main Fox Sports North and Saturday at 3:00 p.m. CT on FSN+.
Minnesota's four new lines worked well against the Badgers, putting up 99 shots on goal, five goals on Saturday and dominating Wisconsin for stretches at even strength. Even more, the number of turnovers was cut down.
At least for Friday, the Gophers won't be able to continue those lines player for player without Vinni Lettieri.
The versatile sophomore forward was suspended a game by the Big Ten on Tuesday for leaving the bench during the last minute altercation.
"I understand why we defended a teammate. I get that part," Lucia said. "I feel bad for Vinni because he got caught in kind of a circumstance where Brady (Skjei) came out of the penalty box. Brady was going to change so Vinni thought he was changing and then I think Brady turned around and saw what was going on so he raced back in there. And Vinni kind of stepped on the ice and got in there kind of late, just separated a couple of people, didn't do anything, wasn't involved, but you know rules are rules.
"It was a good learning experience for our guys just to remind them if something does happen that you have to stay on the bench or you have to stay in the penalty box. You can't get involved even though (Vinni) was kind of a peacemaker.:
Minnesota's head coach instead has several options - going back to the old combinations, sticking a guy in Lettieri's place with Seth Ambroz and Taylor Cammarata and continuing or anything in between.
"How they end up looking we probably won't decide until Friday morning," he said."
As Chris already wrote, Minnesota picked up a verbal commitment Wednesday from Muskegon (USHL) goaltender Eric Schierhorn.
The nearly 19 year-old had this to say in a story released by the USHL:
"I chose the University of Minnesota because of the hockey program's consistent success along with their history of moving players on to the next level," shared Schierhorn. "The coaching staff is a group of genuinely good people that get the most out of their players while continuing to get strong results on the ice year in, year out."
The Gophers cannot (and will not) comment on verbal commitments so there isn't too much to add there than what Chris wrote. Schierhorn, a native of Anchorage, Alaska, would be the first Alaskan since Steve McSwain in the 1980s. His older brother Brad is a junior forward at Dartmouth, where he has 11 points (5G-6A) in 17 games.
With this verbal, Minnesota now has 3 goalie commits in the pipeline in addition to freshman goaltender Nick Lehr. That includes 18 year-old Logan Halladay, who signed a Letter of Intent in the fall, but has struggled with expansion Bloomington (USHL) and Lakeville North (HS-MN) junior Ryan Edquist.
Regardless, Minnesota's goaltending situation for next year is going to depend upon Adam Wilcox's decision to return or go pro. The 2011 Tampa Bay draft pick could also use a loophole to go pro and become a free agent.
Why Senior CLASS Award nominee Kyle Rau has never tweeted
For some reason one of the most frequent Gopher questions I've received is "why has Kyle Rau never tweeted?"
The senior has long held @kylerau as an account. While teammates and others have tweeted at him or included his handle as part of a tweet, Rau's count remains at 0.
So I asked why. Here's Rau's honest response.
"I don't know, I don't really have anything to say to be honest. I just want to have it to keep in contact and look at my buddies and friends and stuff. Maybe one day. My teammates have been ragging me and stuff."
Rau has 969 followers on the ground floor waiting for tweet #1.
By the way, Minnesota's captain is one of 20 players nominated for the Senior CLASS Award. The winner will be announced at the Frozen Four in Boston.
*Since there are 5 Minnesota D1 schools, one does not play so in a way the North Star isn't a true measuring stick. It's just the closest. This year that team is St. Cloud State.
Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate