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Gopher Hockey Notebook: Northeast Region Edition

Minnesota faces Minnesota Duluth for the fifth time this season on Friday. The winner advances to play the BU/Yale winner. The loser goes home.

Adam Krause scored both goals against Minnesota in the Bulldogs' 2-1 win this past January.
Adam Krause scored both goals against Minnesota in the Bulldogs' 2-1 win this past January.
Matt Christians/SB Nation College Hockey

Someone waking up from a three year coma this week would have to think not much has changed in the college hockey world. Minnesota playing Minnesota Duluth? That sounds right.

Of course there's a little more that person would need to learn.

"And everybody thought we wouldn't play our old rivals by switching leagues," opened head coach Don Lucia's media availability on Wednesday.

Minnesota and Minnesota Duluth will play in the second Northeast Regional in Manchester, NH this Friday at 4:30 p.m. CT (5:30 p.m. locally). The game will be broadcast on ESPNU.

This weekend will mark the fifth time the in-state rivals have faced one another in 2014-15. That may not sound like much, but the Gophers and Bulldogs, no longer WCHA foes (Minnesota is in the Big Ten, UMD joined the NCHC), have traveled the country in what seems to be an ongoing non-conference series. The five games will be played in five different locations from Minnesota to Indiana to New Hampshire.

The Gophers have played two other teams five times this year and those are both Big Ten members.

"We know them pretty well," said Brady Skjei.

The latest happens this Friday where either the second seed Bulldogs or third seed Minnesota will have its season come to an end. It's that time of year. Rings are brought out of boxes. Trophies get lifted. Players try to grow playoff beards despite the objections of their coaches.

In a way it's fitting the two Minnesota schools have been paired with one another. Both teams opened the 2014-15 season in the Ice Breaker Tournament in South Bend, Indiana in front of a sparse crowd.

"In some ways it would be nice to just drive up I-35 and go to Duluth in a packed arena. It probably would've been a pretty good atmosphere this weekend," said Lucia. "They'll have a decent crowd when Yale and Boston University play, as they should. It's no different as if it was located here and UMD and Minnesota was playing. There would be a great crowd and not as many people would be interested if Yale was playing BU in the second game."

Both have been familiar with one another. If anything, Bulldogs games have been a season summary for Minnesota.

The Gophers took the first game against Minnesota Duluth with a 4-3 win before the Bulldogs won the next three. A home-and-home sweep over Minnesota began a free fall for the Twin Cities club and a 2-1 loss in the North Star College Cup, giving up a late goal despite out-shooting UMD 11-2 in the third period was the moment the team knew it hit rock bottom.

"When we play how we're capable of playing we can dominate the game and I think you saw that in the third of the North Star Cup," said senior Travis Boyd. "We had some lows in November, but looking back at the North Star Cup we thought that was a pretty big weekend because we got to play Mankato first and they were ranked #1 and Duluth was ranked high too. It would have really helped us getting a couple quality wins.

"Not being able to get those hurt us and definitely put the pressure on us even more. We knew we had to start stringing some wins together if we were to make the NCAA Tournament"

Since then, the Gophers have turned things around. Lucia's team is peaking at the right time. Minnesota is 12-3-1 since the North Star College Cup while playing "desperate hockey." This weekend the Gophers enter the NCAA Tournament with two trophies and a four game winning streak.

The opposition, meanwhile, is 3-5-2 in its last ten games and spent last weekend idle.

It'll be interesting to see how the weekend off and role reversal affect Minnesota Duluth. Few teams have given the Gophers the types of fits that the Bulldogs with its stifling speed, depth and goaltending have done this year.

Still, it's a good time for Minnesota college hockey regardless of who wins. Four of the five teams are in the NCAA Tournament. The fifth, Bemidji State, can claim to be the best team in Minnesota after winning the North Star College Cup.

"One of the great things we should take pride in is our whole state - the play of our 5 in-state schools. Bemidji had a really good year with their second half run. Unfortunately they were disappointed to get knocked out in the first round, but with all the new buildings, the commitment at every school, I think our health of our college teams is better than it has ever been as a group in general," Lucia said.

On the NCAAs and experience

Minnesota enters the tournament with goaltender Adam Wilcox playing some of his best hockey lately. The junior struggled for the first time in his career during January, but has bounced back. Wilcox has had a .934 save percentage since the beginning of February.

It culminated with a 39 save shutout against Ohio State in which Wilcox tied Kellen Briggs for the school shutout record with his 13th (and 6th of the season).

"Some of the saves were really athletic and acrobatic. That has to be top-five for sure," junior defenseman Brady Skjei said about Wilcox's performance after Friday's win.

Wilcox playing well could be what the Gophers need. UMD also has gotten solid goaltending this year from freshman Kasimir Kaskisuo, which Lucia called the Bulldogs' missing piece from a year ago. Minnesota has only scored two goals on UMD in the last three losses after shellacking Kaskisuo for four in the season opener.

However, the Gophers won't have the last change against the second seed Minnesota Duluth like it did against both OSU and Michigan in Detroit.

"We're playing better. There's no question and it starts in net with Adam. Right now he seems to be on top of his game right now and he's the most important player to be at the top of his game." Lucia said. "The nice thing is we've had the match-up when we've had home ice. This will be a little bit different because we won't have match-ups as we head into the NCAAs being the third seed.

"Everybody's going to have to play well this time of year. It's single elimination, it's one and done, mistakes are magnified. Goals are more important this time of year and we just want to go out and play our best hockey."

One thing that could help is the experience from last year's national championship loss. Boyd mentioned that this season is different from previous runs because of it and the brand of desperate hockey the Gophers have had to employ. Minnesota knew what it took to get back.

The NCAA Tournament for him began a week earlier and it paid off with the first conference tournament title in his four seasons in maroon and gold.

Lucia, on the other hand, down played the experience factor, saying that "this is a different team," although added later that it helps some. It has also helped that Minnesota has like last season recently gotten depth, though. The all-sophomore third line of Justin Kloos, Taylor Cammarata and Vinni Lettieri scored twice last weekend. Both goals came at crucial moments and are one reason the Gophers have had more offensive success.

"Obviously with Vinni and Kloos they both have great speed. They're all three sophomores so we kind of have our senior line (of Sam Warning-Boyd-Seth Ambroz) and our sophomore line together," Lucia said. "They were struggling early on when we put them together. I think they've improved, they're starting to get that chemistry that you have to have.

"That's why we haven't tinkered our lines lately. We're trying to get them set and comfortable playing together."

The other Northeast Region game

Besides Minnesota-UMD, top seed Boston University and fourth seed Yale will also play in the Northeast Region. The Terriers enter the regional as the Hockey East champions and feature some guy named Jack Eichel. The Yale Bulldogs (as an aside, this region could be called "3 Dogs, 2 Bulldogs and a Gopher") have the defense and shut down ability to give BU some fits.

Plus Yale knows how to upset number one seeds, as Minnesota may know a little too well.

Bischoff on growing up watching UMD

Sophomore defenseman Jake Bischoff is a Grand Rapids, MN native and grew up in the middle of UMD country. A Gopher fan since birth (his dad Grant had a legendary career at Minnesota between 1988 and 1991 and went to many games as a kid), Bischoff has been in the middle of the rivalry.

"I definitely grew up watching the Gopher/Bulldog rivalry and that was a blast," he said. "A lot of people up there like Duluth. The rivalry has been sort of going on between me and my buddies watching the games. They'd be cheering for Duluth and I'd be cheering for the Gophers."

Bischoff doesn't have a favorite memory of the rivalry, saying there were too many to choose from. He did enjoy the bragging rights if Minnesota won and the get togethers with friends and teammates.

"It's something fun to be a part of, that's for sure," Bischoff said.

Besides Bischoff, Lucia is also a Grand Rapids native.

Congrats to the Minnesota women's team

The Gopher men came back from Detroit on Saturday night. The entire team was able to watch Sunday their women's counterpart win the national championship with a 4-1 win over Harvard at Ridder Arena.

We're supportive of each other and are very happy for them," Lucia said.

It's the third championship in four seasons for Minnesota women's hockey head coach Brad Frost and sixth overall for the Gophers.

"He can write a manual (on being in the Frozen Four). He's there every year," Lucia said. "They have a bad year and they finish second. It's not easy being the men's coach at Minnesota, I'll tell you that. Those are lofty standards."

13 Gophers named to All-Academic team

The Big Ten announced the winter honorees for the conference All-Academic team. 13 Gophers made the cut, which means they had at least a 3.0 GPA in their second season.

The 13 players are Seth Ambroz, Jake Bischoff, Travis Boyd, Hudson Fasching, Justin Kloos, Vinni Lettieri, A.J. Michaelson, Kyle Rau, Connor Reilly, Ryan Reilly, Brady Skjei, Sam Warning and Adam Wilcox.

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Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter --