BOSTON — Hockey in Minnesota is a way of life. The way everyone plays the game connects the sport to its participants at a spiritual level, and the idyllic, iconic backdrop of the frozen lakes and ponds boasts a made-for-television soul representing Rockwellian imagery in its purest form.

The state itself lays claim to a nickname — the State of Hockey — that it backs up by its status as having the most hockey players in the country, and the winners are celebrated as immortal legends permanently etched in its annals.

In college hockey, stewardship of the Minnesota tradition is carried by the six institutions that sponsor the sport at the Division I level, but few are as big as Minnesota’s flagship institution located in Minneapolis. The Golden Gophers, for decades, were an entrenched piece of the Frozen Four landscape, almost to the degree that qualification was a birthright, before the growth of the game and the emergence of other programs, including other schools from their own footprint, moved them off center stage.

It culminated in last year’s Loveland Regional final, when Minnesota State advanced to its first Frozen Four by defeating Minnesota 4-0. The Mavericks played in the national semifinal against St. Cloud State in the first-ever Frozen Four meeting between Minnesota-based teams, and with Minnesota Duluth playing UMass in the other semifinal, the absence of the flagship program from a national championship weekend featuring three Minnesota teams remained conspicuous.

That loss extended Minnesota’s Frozen Four drought to six consecutive tournaments, but it helped ignite and battle harden the team for this year’s run. On Thursday, the team that won the Big Ten regular-season championship and hosted the conference title game before more than 10,000 screaming Minnesotans will look to reclaim its spot as the state’s torchbearer with a rematch against the team that prevented its entry during last year’s tournament.

“We are a very close group,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said. “There were three Minnesota teams last year, and we weren’t one of them. They were going to enjoy that with us not being there. If you’re going to pick on one team, they’re going to pick on the Gophers, I can tell you that. [But] we got our shot this year, and we’re back in it with [Minnesota State].”

The actual matchup will feature teams that don’t differ much from one another. Minnesota can score from anywhere on the ice and boasts one of the game’s best natural scorers in Ben Meyers. Minnesota State counters with Nathan Smith, the second-leading scorer in the country. Both offenses are among the top four in the nation in overall scoring, but both are running into stingy defenses backstopped by goaltenders capable of shutting down any opponent.

Both have complete teams capable of playing complete games, and any difference in numbers is easily explained away. Minnesota, for example, allowed over a goal per game more than the Mavericks, but Minnesota State’s Dryden McKay is a Hobey Baker Award finalist compared to the Gophers’ transition from Jack LaFontaine to Justen Close.

“It took Justen two weeks,” Motzko said. “He went 2-2 in his first two weeks, then went on a roll. He didn’t play for two and a half years, [but] all of us had tremendous faith in him. You just can’t be sitting on the bench and getting game time. We just had to keep throwing him out there. You could see him getting stronger as it went and gaining confidence in himself, the players in him. It was just a handful of things that just kept coming together.”

“I think going all the way from their back end, I can go right down their lineup, they beat teams with depth [and] beat teams with their defensemen,” Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings said. “[Close] has come in and done a phenomenal job at batting close to .930 as far as save percentage. For us, we don’t want to pour any gas on that fire. Puck management and us trying to utilize some of the same things I just said about Minnesota for ourselves — we’ve utilized our depth, our back end has been good, and our goaltending has been good. You add all that up, it’s a pretty good matchup.”

For Hastings, that quiet confidence is exactly the salt-of-the-earth swagger he helped build at Minnesota State. The university is a far cry from the bright lights of the Twin Cities, though the Division II school is an understated powerhouse, and Mankato is closer to the Iowa state border than it is to Minneapolis and St. Paul, though it’s still less than 100 miles from the metropolitan region. From a college hockey standpoint, it’s a Neverland that maybe didn’t think it was fully possible to compete at the national level even as it didn’t stop believing in its team.

“We hosted Hockey Day in Minnesota,” Hastings said, “and had over 10,000 people inside and outside of a football stadium on our campus. I think that says a lot for the leadership of our community to be able to pull that off, but more importantly, the support from the grassroots level. The amount of players that were able to get on that ice sheet in that time said a lot about the southern part of the state right now.”

“There’s kind of a buzz around Mankato,” defenseman Wyatt Aamodt said. “It’s almost become normal, but I don’t think that will ever be the case for us. We’ve talked about this before. This is special, so don’t ever miss this opportunity, this chance. That’s kind of been our conversation. This type of stuff doesn’t happen often.”

What’s at stake on Thursday night is a trip to the national championship. It’s a game between two very good hockey teams as part of a very good Frozen Four. Two former conference mates will reunite to determine who advances to Saturday, and the losing team will have to board the long flight home without its championship trophy.

Yet it’s also the state championship in the State of Hockey. Minnesota won the Big Ten regular season and hosted its sellout crowd for a game against Michigan. Minnesota State won the CCHA and hosted its sellout crowd for the inaugural league title game against Bemidji State, another Minnesota team. They advanced through their respective regionals and now collide again, this time on the grandest stage in college hockey.

“Just growing up as a Minnesota kid, obviously watching all the Division I programs in our state was pretty cool to see,” said Aamodt. “Just to get to play [Minnesota], kind of the big dog to Minnesota college teams as people would say, on the national stage [is] pretty cool.”

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