While there was plenty of hockey played around the region this weekend, some of the biggest news early this week came from off the ice. The University of North Dakota Fighting the Inevitables have been given a new nickname, an official one, as the NCAA finally closed this chapter of their history.
I'm sad to have to retire my short-lived moniker for the team, but I get it. You can't fight the inevitable forever, though I'm sure plenty of North Dakota fans will keep the tradition alive in my honor for years to come. For the foreseeable, I'll be typing the Fighting Hawks, a nickname which vaguely resembles their old name and sort of makes sense, but will really only be good if you give the hawk a switchblade or some sort of weapon.
But more to the point, it lets the NCAA, and us, move on and get back to what's really important: hockey. In the past couple years, the MSU-UMN rivalry has felt like less of a rivarly and more of a formality, as old WCHA rivals met up for what has been a series of home-and-homes that have lacked their old spark.
To some extent, Friday's game was endemic to that new tradition. Gophers goalie Eric Schierhorn blanked the Mavericks, stopping 31 shots and providing consistent backstopping. Early in the season, I doubted whether Schierhorn could provide a long-term solution for the Gophers, whose goaltending had been relatively stable under graduated goalie Adam Wilcox. Historically, I haven't always appreciated Wilcox' style of play, often playing angles poorly and giving up goals at inopportune times, but Schierhorn's early play this season has reminded me that he, like Wilcox and all NCAA goalies, are works in progress. They take time to develop and the NCAA gives them the type of strong, consistent league play they need to develop properly.
Over the past few games, Schierhorn has shown the fruits of that development. As he has played more and more ice time, he's developed into a much more complete goalie, giving the Gophers confidence to move the puck forward. That kind of relief in the defensive zone has allowed the Gophers to play more forward on offense and drive deeper and more confidently into the neutral zone.
It's exactly that type of confidence the Gophers exuded on Friday night, making crisp breakout passes and churning through the neutral zone like many maroon and gold squads of the past few years. Despite not scoring for the vast majority of the first period, Schierhorn's solid goalkeeping allowed them to find their footing and eventually led to Justin Kloos' opening goal, ultimately their game winner. The Gophers continued to control play in Mankato the rest of the night, built on Schierhorn's back, and it allowed them to continue to reinforce good habits.
On Saturday night, the Gophers returned to Mariucci and, for the vast majority of the game, they looked like a different squad than they had the whole season. They looked like the team of Friday night and of seasons past. They stifled play through the NZ and contained MSU's offense.
The Mavericks, however, could not, and would not let the Gophers forget that hockey is a game of 3+ periods and 60+ minutes. They had gotten the worse end of play the entire night, giving up penalties, rough turnovers, and allowing the Gophers to control play throughout. Nevertheless, the Mavericks played a stronger game than they had the night before, limiting shot attempts and holding the Gophers to only a two goal lead.
But with five minutes left to play in the game, the Gophers let their foot off the gas. It's a lesson this year's Gophers haven't had to learn yet. With their success in past years built on the effort of hardworking stalwarts like Kyle Rau and Nick Bjugstad, the 2015-2016 Gophers need a refresher course in persistence. In the last four minutes of Saturday's game, the Mavericks grasped at straws, only down by a pair, and finally something clicked.
With just under 4 minutes left to play, Brett Knowles found the back of the net and brought MSU within one. The Gophers instinctively clamped down, but in so doing barricaded themselves in their own zone, allowing MSU to sustain its attack in a way they hadn't been able to for 116 minutes. They gave up on the system that got them 6 goals in two nights and allowed Teddy Blueger to deflate their sails with the tying goal with under a minute left.
The Gophers played their OT session in shock, struggling to regain composure. The Mavericks, energized by their last-second heroics, pressed on. All told, the Gophers played two better games and were the better team both nights, in every regard except for the final stanza. They gave up on their system and gave up on their goalie. Schierhorn has come so far this season to become the Gophers' backbone, but as MSU demonstrated, you need more than that to be able to stand tall at the end of the day.
Elsewhere around the midwest, here's what you might have missed:
University of Wisconsin
UW signs five prospects | UW Athletics
Including two Minnesotans, the UW begins its restock early
University of North Dakota
UND settles on new nickname | CBS Local
Out with the Fighting the Inevitables, in with the Fighting Hawks
Johnson scores bizarre string of goals | Grand Forks Herald
Apparently unable to behave like a normal adult, Luke Johnson refuses to score normal goals
University of Minnesota - Duluth
UMD snags four prospects with NLIs | NNCNow
The Bulldogs join the Badgers in the early recruiting season
Bulldogs win first NCAA 3-on-3 OT | Duluth News Tribune
Tony Cameranesi makes it another first for the Bulldogs, scoring first NCAA 3-on-3 OT winner, along former Bulldog Jason Garrison, who scored the NHL's first 3-on-3 OT goal
University of Minnesota - Twin Cities
Schierhorn blanks MSU, settles in | Pioneer Press
The Gophers have picked up speed in front of emerging Eric Schierhorn
Minnesota State University - Mankato
MSU avenges home loss with last-minute stunner | Fox Sports North
The Mavericks scored 3 goals in less time than it took MN to score its first on Saturday, deflating a rising Gophers squad
St. Cloud State University
Western Michigan takes first home loss | Bronco Athletics
In retrospect, 5 - 2 doesn't seem so bad
SCSU crunches Western Michigan 11 - 1 | St. Cloud Times
Joey Benik's 4 goals lead the Huskies to a dominating win in Kalamazoo
Bemidji State University
Harms named WCHA Offensive Player of the Week | Bemidji Pioneer
Brendan Harms has been on fire lately for the Beavers
BSU's third period leads to win over Alaska | Bemidji Pioneer
A slew of third period PP goals snows Nanooks in