Minnesota Gophers vs. North Dakota Fighting Hawks: College Hockey Rivalry Restored

Arguably the greatest college hockey rivalry of all-time commences this weekend at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, ND. That is, the Minnesota Gophers against the University of North Dakota.

On Friday Jan. 21, 1949, the University of North Dakota beat the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers 4-3 in overtime. This was the start of one of the biggest rivalries in college hockey. In fact, some would say it was the start of the best college hockey rivalry there’s ever been.

68 years later, the border battle continues with a weekend series at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, ND, one year after playing each another in Minnesota. 

The two teams have seen plenty of each other over the years as members of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA). In all, the Gophers control the better half of the rivalry going 147-130-16 against their hated rival. Although, North Dakota has hung more national championship banners in their history with eight compared to Minnesota’s five. 

Unfortunately, 2013 brought some changes. The result saw North Dakota and Minnesota leave the WCHA for separate conferences. Specifically, Minnesota headed to the Big Ten for the conference’s inaugural season and North Dakota moved to the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC).

Consequently, this meant they wouldn’t see each other during the regular season. At least, in the short term. Unquestionably, the most disappointing result of the changes.

Before rekindling the rivalry last season, the only time they would see one another was during the 2014 Frozen Four when Justin Holl scored the game-winning goal with 0.6 seconds left giving Minnesota a 2-1 victory. A heart-breaker for North Dakota, yet a reminder of how sorely missed the historic rivalry was during their first year apart. 

In each of the next two seasons, North Dakota and Minnesota didn’t see each other at all, something both parties grew anxious about. During that stint, the only time there was ever hope for another matchup was if the teams made the NCAA Tournament. Yet, even then, everything would have to go right for a matchup to take place between the bitter rivals. 

So, it came as no surprise when Minnesota and North Dakota reached a two-year agreement prior to the 2016-17 season for the teams to play one series in Minnesota and one series in North Dakota. As stated, the Gophers and UND played at Mariucchi Arena in 2016, so this season’s rivalry heads to North Dakota for the first time in five years.

Last year, the Gophers took the series. In the first game, Gophers forward Tommy Novak led the way scoring a pair of goals and an assist, while North Dakota was led by freshman Tyson Jost who scored a goal and two assists. Despite Minnesota outshooting UND 37-22, the Gophers couldn’t come up with the win in overtime, resulting in a 5-5 tie. 

The next night, Minnesota shutout UND 2-0, giving them the series victory at home. Eric Schierhorn recorded 33 saves in the shutout, while Mike Szmatula and Vinni Lettieri combined for the goals. Strangely enough, UND outshot them 33-20 in this one, but a strong effort after a rough first night from Schierhorn was enough for the Gophers to prevail. 

Heading into this season’s matchup, the No. 4 Fighting Hawks (3-0-1) look to build on a home sweep against St. Lawrence last weekend. They recorded 2-1 and 6-1 wins with UND goalie Cam Johnson locking down the posts with a combined 48 saves. Through four games, he has a 1.23 goals against average and .938 save percentage. He’s a strong candidate for the Mike Richter Award given out to the nation’s top goalie. 

As for Minnesota, they want to bounce back after a rocky start to Big Ten play. The Gophers split a two-game series against Penn State, losing the first game 3-1 and winning the second one 6-3. Freshman forward Brannon McManus is making a name for himself in a Gophers jersey scoring three goals on three shots in the Gophers 6-3 victory.

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Of course, the records and rankings aren’t going to matter when it comes a matchup between these hostiles rivals. Contrary to what coaches and players may say, this series is as big as gets, so expect a couple of intense showdowns between two of college hockey’s best teams.