Michigan came to the Ice Breaker Tournament in Duluth a week ago and left with not only a trophy following two wins over Minnesota Duluth and Minnesota State, but the No. 1 ranking in both national polls.

However good the Wolverines are, coach Scott Sandelin said his team could see an even better opponent this weekend than the Michigan squad that beat the Bulldogs 5-1 last Friday at Amsoil Arena.

No. 5 UMD (3-1) will take on No. 4 Minnesota (3-1) in a home-and-home series this weekend that begins at 7 p.m. Friday at 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis. It concludes Saturday at 7:07 p.m. at a nearly sold-out Amsoil Arena in Duluth.

With 2021 Mike Richter Award winner Jack LaFontaine back for a fifth season — third with the Gophers after transferring from Michigan — in goal, a mobile group of defensemen and an overall deep roster, Sandelin said the Bulldogs are facing another big challenge this weekend.

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“They might be more skilled from top to bottom through their forward lines,” Sandelin said. “They both (Michigan and Minnesota) have a lot of skill, a lot of speed. Both are built very similar.”

Friday’s game in Minneapolis will be the first between the Bulldogs and Gophers in 727 days after the two University of Minnesota system schools failed to play each other during the 2020-21 COVID-19 pandemic season.

Meetings between the two former WCHA rivals have become more rare in recent years. After playing eight times in the first two seasons — including five times in five different cities in 2014-15 — following the Gophers’ move to the Big Ten and the Bulldogs’ move to the NCHC, the two programs have played only eight games against each other during the previous six seasons.

READ MORE: This week’s Bulldog Insider Newsletter asks, “Who is the Bulldogs' biggest rival? Is it Minnesota or North Dakota?”

Despite the lack of meetings on the ice lately, UMD fifth-year senior defenseman Matt Anderson of Shakopee said the rivalry is still going strong.

“It’s going to be exciting,” Anderson said. “I think they’re sold out here so obviously it’s going to be a sweet atmosphere, for sure.”

Bulldogs finding depth

Sandelin said this week the team needs to get more out of some of its older players, and that some returnees still need to “get going,” however, he’s liked the depth and consistency the younger players have brought to the bottom half of the lineup.

While listed third on the line charts printed out for each game, junior wing Quinn Olson, freshmen center Dominic James and sophomore wing Blake Biondi have arguably been the Bulldogs’ top line to start with a combined three goals — including two game-winners — and four assists among them.

UMD’s fourth line, anchored by freshman center Carter Loney, has also been strong, even with a rotation of left wingers that has included senior Jarrett Lee, freshman Kyler Kleven and, most recently, junior Ben Almquist.

Junior Luke Loheit has occupied the right wing position on that line after having to center the line a year ago when UMD struggled up the middle. Like the captain, senior wing Noah Cates, the move from center back to wing has been beneficial for Loheit — a 2018 seventh-round draft pick of the Ottawa Senators.

“Luke is playing some of his best hockey right now,” Sandelin said. “He’s kept the game simple, he’s learning what he needs to be, to be effective. He's getting rewarded because he's playing the game the right way, and it’s great to see. He’s been really good for us. I think that line, no matter who’s been on there, has been good for us.”

Scouting the Gophers

Minnesota Gophers goalie Jack LaFontaine, the 2021 Mike Richter Award winner as national goaltender of the year, makes a save versus St. Cloud State on Friday, Oct. 15, 2021 at 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis. Jason Wachter / File / The Rink Live
Minnesota Gophers goalie Jack LaFontaine, the 2021 Mike Richter Award winner as national goaltender of the year, makes a save versus St. Cloud State on Friday, Oct. 15, 2021 at 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis. Jason Wachter / File / The Rink Live

The Gophers enter this weekend’s series coming off a home-and-home split against No. 3 St. Cloud State in which both teams won on the road. The Huskies won 2-1 at Mariucci, while the Gophers scored a highly controversial 4-3 overtime win in St. Cloud that prompted the NCHC to acknowledge it missed a game-changing penalty in OT and a series of apologies by Gophers coach Bob Motzko.

Senior Blake McLaughlin of Grand Rapids — who dragged a Husky down in overtime with a handful of jersey — leads the Gophers in scoring with seven points via a goal and six assists in four games.

Junior forward Bryce Brodzinski has a team-high of four goals, followed by senior captain Sammy Walker, who has three after scoring the game-winner in OT following the no-call on Saturday in St. Cloud.

The Gophers feature one player who did see the Bulldogs a year ago in senior forward Grant Cruikshank, who transferred in after three seasons at Colorado College. The former Tigers captain posted two goals and an assist last season against the Bulldogs during the NCHC Pod in Omaha. He has three goals and two assists in 10 games against UMD.