The Minot State men's club hockey team has posted eight wins this season against teams currently ranked in the top 25, but there's one opponent that's been giving the defending American Collegiate Hockey Association national champions fits.
It's not an opponent the Beavers will see - or have seen - in the national tournament. It's not an opponent chock-full of upperclassmen. And on paper, it's not an opponent one would think could have MSU scratching its head after each meeting, but junior college foe Williston State has been that team this year.
Since blasting the Tetons 8-2 on Nov. 1 in their first meeting of the season, the Beavers have dropped three straight to their in-state rival - two in overtime and one in a shootout. The shootout loss counts as a tie in the standings for both teams. They meet tonight at the Agri-Sports Complex in Williston for the final time this season.
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The Minot State men’s club hockey team travels to Williston State tonight for its fifth and final meeting with the Tetons this season. WSC holds a 3-1 series lead.
"The biggest thing is it just shows how evenly matched we are," MSU coach Wade Regier said. "You have to give them kudos. They've found a way to win. Those last three games someone on their side has stepped up when they needed it and scored a big goal or set up a big play."
Following that 8-2 game, WSC coach Seamus Gregory had a serious talk with his team and began fine-tuning its approach.
"We just had a heart-to-heart with the guys about what the rivalry meant for the state of North Dakota and for our program," Gregory said. "At that time we had 19 freshmen so there was a lot of kids who didn't really understand. We tweaked a couple things on the ice but it was more of a passionate speech about what the rivalry meant and where we wanted the rivalry to go."
WSC sophomore forward Logan Millican has had the most success against the Beavers, scoring four goals in the series, including a hat trick in a 6-5 shootout victory on Nov. 2 at Maysa Arena. Sophomores Darius Cole (2 goals, 2 assists) and Dario Torres (1 g, 3 a) have also been offensive threats for the Tetons.
MSU (18-5-3) was held to three total goals in its last two meetings, well short of its 4.73 average. Last season, the Beavers were 4-1 against the Tetons, winning by an average margin of four goals per contest.
"They definitely play a physical style," Regier said. "Kind of like last year with us when we had all those big boys back there. We were very intimidating, very physical. We outmatched a lot of teams including them and this year the tides turned a little bit. Seamus brought in a couple really good, solid guys who've bought into that system."
Regier pointed out freshmen Karson and Kyle Kuntz of Devils Lake as two defensemen that have made life difficult for his forwards.
"They're two real strong North Dakota boys and they're fun to coach," Gregory said. "They're the type of players you want to have on your team, not on the opposing team."
Regier said MSU needs an offensive spark and it just might get one in the return of forward Cam McGeough. A first-team all-tournament selection last year, McGeough didn't play during the fall semester due to an overwhelming course-load. The fourth-year nursing student spent three days a week working at Trinity Hospital and couldn't commit to both school and hockey.
McGeough has played in three games this season - all this month - and made his presence felt in a 7-5 victory against Oakland University on Saturday. The first-line center netted a hat trick and added an assist, and his linemates Logan Herauf and Jared McIntosh combined for two goals and five assists.
To get their second victory against the Tetons this season, the Beavers have to figure out a way to solve WSC goaltender Tyler Ampe. The sophomore netminder has recorded 63 saves on 66 shots in his last two starts against the Beavers.
The Tetons are just 8-10-2 against the rest of their schedule, but they always bring their best against the Beavers.
"It's turning into an intense, heated rivalry, but a respectful rivalry," Regier said. "There's always a little pushing and shoving after the whistle. There's always jarring back and fourth. The guys are getting so frustrated how (WSC) has been able to do a little extra the last three times we've played them. That's something the guys are going to get fired up about. This is a big one for us."
Tauros, Blizzard meet in crucial series
The Minot Minotauros still have 19 games remaining in their regular season, but their next three games against the Brookings Blizzard will have a playoff atmosphere.
The Tauros (18-20-3) sit 10 points ahead of Brookings (11-24-7) for the final playoff spot in the Central Division and have played one fewer game. The teams play their first of three straight meetings tonight at 7 at Maysa Arena.
"It's a critical time of the season," Tauros coach Marty Murray said. "Obviously, coming off a big weekend in Aberdeen, we were able to separate ourselves a little. There are six points up for grabs and I'm sure they'll be hungry."
Road games have not been kind to the Blizzard, who are are 4-13-3 away from the Larson Ice Center this year. Friday and Saturday's contests are in Brookings.
A three-game sweep for Minot would all but lock up a second straight trip to the playoffs. It would even make a push for third place a possibility depending on how Aberdeen fares in its weekend series with the Minnesota Wilderness. But Murray said he's not concerned about that at this juncture.
"It would certainly look good in the standings, but you can't look that far ahead," he said. "We're just going to have to take it one shift at a time."
The Tauros enter tonight's contest on a four-game winning streak after losing seven straight. Brookings has dropped four straight and seven of its last eight.
"Confidence is a big thing in our game," Murray said. "You have to keep a level head. It's a fine line between winning and losing. It's one little mistake that can be the difference in the game. We have to be focused shift in, shift out and hopefully guys can bury some chances."
Offense has been hard to come by for both teams. Minot has scored the second-fewest goals in the NAHL with 90 and the Blizzard's 94 tallies are tied for the fourth fewest. The difference is in the defensive zone. Brookings has surrendered 36 more goals than the Tauros and have amassed 347 more penalty minutes.
The Tauros have scored by committee all season and that's held true in their five previous matchups with Brookings. Nine Minot skaters registered goals in those contests with Cameron Rowat being the only one to light the lamp more than once.
Mike Kraft covers high school athletics and hockey. Follow him on Twitter @MKraft23_MDN.