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Rivalry: Gophers vs. Bulldogs

Golden Gophers never run short of rivalries.

Brett Olson made a slick move for a shootout goal against Gophers goalie Justen Close. (MHM Photo / John Gilbert)

They say you never play with more intensity than when you’re playing against your brother, but maybe that should be amended as a way to incorporate some of college hockey’s biggest rivalries.

The University of Minnesota, for example, has a backlog of traditional rivals that go back to Michigan, Michigan State and North Dakota from the early days of college hockey. More recently, the expansion of Division I college hockey teams within Minnesota has led to ferocious rivalries mainly with the University of Minnesota Duluth, and still more recently, Wisconsin and St. Cloud State, along with Minnesota State Mankato and Bemidji State, and St. Thomas arriving on the DI scene.

By going into the Big Ten Conference, the Gophers pretty well forfeited the intensity of the rivalries with North Dakota, UMD and the other in-state colleges, in exchange for keeping Wisconsin and renewing acquaintances with Michigan and Michigan State. Another thing that is certain is that even if the Gophers don’t consider some of those in-state foes as huge rivals, all of them point to the Gophers as the team they most want to beat.

Gophers goaltender Justen Close got the tip of his pad on this shot by UMD’s Luke Bast (38). (MHM Photo / John Gilbert)

In the middle of November, the Gophers can’t take a weekend off from running a gauntlet of those big rivalries. After a banner season that ended as the NCAA Frozen Four runner-up, the Gophers enjoyed some early weeks as the No. 1-ranked team in the country — despite the signing of five defensemen and three prize forwards that are, frankly, impossible to replace.

The Gophers opened with tune-up victories over Bemidji State and a pair against St.Thomas — including a breathtaking 6-5 overtime win in their season opener against the Tommies. Then things got serious, as Minnesota split a series at North Dakota, then returned to 3M Arena at Mariucci and felt the sting of a pair of setbacks pinned on them by Wisconsin, 5-2 and 3-2.

That set up last weekend’s home-and-home series against UMD, which began under a cloak of emotion as the teams paid pregame tributes both nights to Adam Johnson, a quick and skilled center who played for Hibbing/Chisholm and UMD. Johnson died Oct. 28 after a tragic incident during a game in England when an opponent’s skate made contact with Johnson’s neck.

Tributes have been constant from all around the world, and a celebration of life for Johnson was held in Hibbing earlier this week. Without a doubt, the emotional drain for the Bulldogs left them running on empty for their first game against the Gophers last weekend, losing 5-1 at Mariucci to the speedy Gophers.

The next night, the rivalry shifted to Duluth where UMD rebounded with a 4-3 shootout victory at AMSOIL Arena, which the NCAA counts as a tie. Both games were sellouts, with more than 10,000 at Mariucci and 7,345 at AMSOIL.

Time for a breather? It would be nice, but the Gophers go right to Ann Arbor to face Michigan. For any team, facing North Dakota, Wisconsin’s rejuvenated Badgers, UMD and Michigan on consecutive weekends should earn a trip to Acapulco. But not in the crazy world of college hockey’s biggest rivalries.

“We knew it would be a tough series against Duluth,” said Gopher coach Bob Motzko, after the Bulldogs came back from a lethargic first game for a high-speed and intense rematch. “We knew they’d be better in the second game. And we’re not close to getting into our offensive rhythm yet. They had a quick start and we took two really bad penalties. On the road, you have to be disciplined.”

Rhett Pitlick continues his flight as UMD secures shootout victory. (MHM Photo / John Gilbert)

Back-and-forth between Gophers, Bulldogs
UMD, on the other hand, is also rebuilding a bit, and the experience gained early by the Bulldogs, who started off 3-0-2 with both of the ties being shootout wins, got another shot at the game-deciding plan, which counts for an extra point in league play but is only for deciding official ties in interleague play.

In the second game of the weekend between UMD and the Gophers, the Bulldogs’ Jack Smith scored his first collegiate goal for a 1-0 lead, but Jimmy Snuggerud tied it with his sixth goal of the season for Minnesota. Midway through the second period, Snuggerud took a cross-checking penalty in front of UMD’s goal — one of the bad penalties Motzko later referred to. It was made worse when UMD’s Cole Spicer showed the merits of getting a chance to center the first line and drilled a power-play goal to regain the lead at 2-1. Minnesota again tied it, when Aaron Huglen scored a power-play goal after UMD coach Scott Sandelin might have had a gripe about the hooking penalty Kyler Kleven was assessed to create that Minnesota power play.

Minnesota took a 3-2 lead when Jaxon Nelson scored later in the second period, which ended with Connor Kurth took a last-minute penalty for hooking. The overlapping power play gave UMD’s top sniper, Ben Steeves, a small opening, which was all he needed to drill a perfect pass to the top of the right circle from Luke Loheit at 0:53 of the third period for a 3-3 tie. It stayed deadlocked through to the end of regulation and 3-on-3 overtime, which was mostly 4-on-3 because Minnesota’s Rhett Pitlick was called for an extra man, and then UMD’s Carter Loney was called for tripping Snuggerud as he tried to break out of the Minnesota end to give the Gophers the extra skater.

But repeated blocks of Gopher missiles and some huge saves by UMD goaltender Matthew Thiessen held the tie, and it was on to the shootout, where Thiessen again was the star. Brett Olson skated in and beat Gophers netminder Justen Close inside the left post on the first try, and Thiessen made a big save on Brody Lamb at the other end. Steeves then skated in and whistled a shot past Close on the second UMD try, so when Thiessen went down and stacked the pads to block Pitlick’s shot and send him flying across the crease, UMD had regained its form with a 4-3 shootout victory (though officially a tie).

UMD sophomore Cole Spicer celebrated his goal that gave the Bulldogs a 2-1 lead in Saturday night’s 3-3 tie with Minnesota. (MHM Photo / John Gilbert)

Familiar foe for UMD’s Spicer
Spicer’s goal in the game was another contribution to the rivalry scenario.

“I played two years at the U-18 team in the U.S. Development program,” Spicer said. “When I was there, I was teammates with Snuggerud and Ryan Chesley of the Gophers.”

So, matching goals with Snuggerud was a special treat for Spicer, a sophomore who didn’t play much last year after transferring from North Dakota. Spicer grew up in Grand Forks, and his family has a tradition of great athletes who all played for the Fighting Sioux back in the day when that nickname was proper.

“I committed to North Dakota when I was 14 years old, because my dream growing up was to play there,” Spicer said. “I left high school after one year and played on a Triple-A team in Michigan, then played my junior and senior years on the U-18 team. A year ago, I went to North Dakota and enrolled as a freshman, but they told me because of COVID, some older players had stayed for a fifth year, and they brought in some older junior players, so they wanted me to go back and play another year in junior.”

To say that was a disappointment would be an understatement, so Spicer decommitted at UND and opened his recruiting channels again. UMD associate head coach Adam Krause called Spicer, followed by a call from Sandelin, according to Spicer.

“I accepted their offer right away, because I love the whole culture at UMD,” Spicer said. “Coach Sandelin might have great players or not, but he manages to win. We’ve got a big family here. I’m living with four other guys, and we get together and have other players over to our place every Sunday to watch football and have a lot of laughs. Everybody is a great guy on this team, and I don’t regret what happened to me at all.”

Spicer, who was placed between grad students Quinn Olson and Loheit on the first line when Dominic James suffered a season-ending injury two weeks into the season, now has four goals and is seeing quality time on both the power play and penalty kills. And as rivalries go, he has another one coming up imminently.

North Dakota comes to Duluth for a series to open the NCHC regular season at AMSOIL Arena.

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