Thanksgiving feast: Gophers men’s hockey vs. North Dakota

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These dates have been circled all season long, with two longtime bitter border foes meeting in one of the top rivalries their sport has to offer.

“Gophers-Wisconsin football?”, with the matchup for the Big Ten West title being played Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.

No, this is about hockey: Minnesota vs. old nemesis North Dakota.

On Thanksgiving night and Black Friday, the Gophers and North Dakota renew their men’s hockey rivalry at 3M Arena at Mariucci. The odd schedule was agreed on by both schools months ago, with a Thursday-Friday solution for the hockey series being used to avoid a Friday-Sunday schedule. With the Gophers football team at home, Saturday was not an option, even well before the colossal nature of this game for Paul Bunyan’s Axe took shape.

So, a Thanksgiving hockey showdown was born.

“There’s a little more fire in the air,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said, “and there’s more intensity.”

Added Minnesota junior forward Scott Reedy, “There always will be bad blood between these two clubs. This is an easy one to get up for.”

It’s an important one to get up for, too, for Minnesota, which has endured an up-and-down first two months of the season. The Gophers (5-6-3) will face a resurgent North Dakota team that used an 8-0-1 run to forge a 10-1-2 record and ascend to the No. 3 ranking in the country. The Fighting Hawks are well on their way to returning to the NCAA tournament after a two-year absence. For the Gophers to accomplish that same feat, a couple of positive results in this series would go a long way.

That’s easier said than done against North Dakota, which is scoring 3.85 goals per game (fifth best nationally) and is giving up 1.54 (third fewest). The Fighting Hawks also have been tested with road series against two teams that have been ranked No. 1 this season, Minnesota State Mankato and Denver. UND went 1-1-2 in those games.

Motzko sees a fundamentally sound and deep North Dakota team that’s relied on solid goaltending from Adam Scheel (1.52 goals-against average, .922 save percentage). In other words, the usual UND formula.

“When I watch film, it’s the same North Dakota team I’ve seen for years,” Motzko said. “They play a heavy style and always have a guy planted in front of the net. They’re very efficient on the power play. … It’s the same North Dakota, just different names on the back of the jersey.”

Those names also will bring a strong physical element to the series.

“They’re a lot more hard-nosed than a lot of teams we’ve played,” Reedy said. “They’ll be all over us early.”

In their last meeting, North Dakota beat the Gophers 3-1 in the 2018 U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game in Las Vegas, a contest that featured 10 penalties by Minnesota and eight by North Dakota. Though these teams no longer meet up to four times a year as they did as WCHA members, the animosity — remember those fights in the handshake line in both 2008 and 2012? — has been passed down. Just ask Sampo Ranta.

“I knew about [the rivalry] a little bit, but I didn’t know how big it was,” said Ranta, a Gophers sophomore forward and native of Finland. “Now that I’m here, I know how big it is and know the history about it. … It’s exciting. I love playing against them.”

Ranta’s coach shares those sentiments, even if Thanksgiving means sticks and pucks instead of turkey and stuffing.

“Let’s play Thursday and get this thing going because it’s North Dakota week,” Motzko said. “Both teams will have Saturday to celebrate.”

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