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2015 NCAA Hockey Tournament: Minnesota's defense focused on stopping Duluth's offense

Brady Skjei (2) is one of several players counted upon on Minnesota's blue line.
Brady Skjei (2) is one of several players counted upon on Minnesota's blue line.
Matt Christians/SB Nation College Hockey

Familiarity breeds many things besides contempt. The familiarity between Minnesota Duluth (20-15-3) and Minnesota (23-12-3) this season is one in which both teams are aware of what the other can do to the other. They know the players on the ice. There is no reason not to by now.

The two Minnesota schools will play for a fifth time in 2014-15 on Friday in Manchester, NH as part of the 2015 NCAA Tournament. ESPNU will broadcast the game, one of two first round Northeast Region games, at 5:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. CT

With the knowledge of how UMD plays, Minnesota's defense knows that it has its hands full with the Bulldogs' offense. Minnesota Duluth won three of the previous four games this season. UMD, which averages 2.87 goals per game despite missing several key players with injuries this season, out-shot the Gophers in all except for the last one, a 2-1 victory in which Adam Krause scored both goals. That includes a 38-17 shot advantage in a 3-0 win November 14th.

In fact, Minnesota Duluth dominated several large stretches during each game.

"They know our guys and we know their guys. Now it's about who can execute, who is going to play a little more mistake-free," Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said about his in-state rival, which has featured a pair of 2-1 games the last two times.

UMD has good size and speed which can give teams fits with puck movement which begins from the blue line. Throw in the fact there is depth that matches Minnesota's and that the Bulldogs should get Alex Iafallo back and it makes for a big assignment for the Gopher blue line.

"We know they have a lot depth up front and that they are fast and quick," sophomore Jake Bischoff said. "They sort of play the same sort of style as us in a way. So I think we definitely (want) to keep them to the outside and play hard and play the body a little bit, keep them away from our net."

Defenseman Brady Skjei agrees, saying that speed was the Bulldogs' biggest attribute. At the same time, he acknowledges that Minnesota is different than the last time the two teams played in January.

"I think right now that we're definitely a harder team to play against. We were pretty easy to play against for a stretch there, not going into the hard areas where what it takes to win games and score goals. I think we're clicking on all cylinders and we're peaking at the right time," Skjei said.

One reason for that confidence is winning the Big Ten conference tournament last weekend, Skjei said.

"It was a great accomplishment for us. That was a goal we had at the beginning of the year to win that tournament. It was kind of weird that we had never won a game, that the seniors had never won a game in that tournament or anyone else," he said.

Minnesota's blue line has grown in confidence and come together as a team. Junior Mike Reilly is the first defenseman to lead the Gophers in scoring since Mike Crowley in 1996-97 and is a Hobey Baker finalist. Freshman Ryan Collins has solidified a role in the Gopher lineup over the last six weeks. Skjei is always a dependable defensive D.

Bischoff, meanwhile, has grown this year playing alongside and learning from Reilly's work ethic. The sophomore has spent time focusing on being harder to play against and doing whatever it takes to contribute, whether it is blocking shots or stop plays defensively before jumping up in the play.

With the knowledge and confidence comes a change in mindset.

"My mindset is to keep doing what we've been doing. Just keep playing our game and not try to worry about them as much. We know we've played them a lot this year so we know what to expect," Bischoff said.


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 --