The two teams met at the very start, and then again on the final day of the Minnesota Junior Hockey League season.
Fittingly, the Twin Cities Northern and Lights and Rochester Ice Hawks will close out the Bush Cup Playoffs as well.
The two MnJHL Tier III National Tournament qualifiers will vie for the Bush Cup staring at 7:05 p.m. Friday, March 16 at the Rochester Recreation Center.
The series will shift to the Bloomington Ice Gardens for Game 2 in the best-of-three showdown at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, March 18. If it is needed, a third and deciding game will be held at 6:45 p.m. Saturday, March 24 at BIG.
Most who witnessed the Northern Lights and Ice Hawks duel this winter wouldn't be surprised if the series goes the distance.
"It's been really competitive all year, that's for sure," said Twin Cities head coach Northern Lights. "You kind of had a feeling it would end this way, and I wouldn't be shocked if it took three games to get it done."
Added Rochester head coach Nick Fatis: "Most of the games we've played with them have been tight, and that's what you want this time of the year. You want it to be a good series. That's a great team over there, and we feel we're playing pretty well right now. You hope that leads to an exciting series."
Both teams had to earn their way to this point, as each needed to win a Game 3 in the MnJHL Bush Cup semifinals to get here.
Twin Cities, which won the MnJHL regular season championship after compiling a 42-5-1 record, bested Hudson a week ago in three games. Five different players scored in what was a 5-2 Game 3 victory, and Nick Heimer (Rochester, Minn.) made 31 saves to finish the three-game set with a 2.21 goals against average, and a saves percentage of .927.
In the other semifinal, goaltending was also a big part of the story, as Rochester's Karel Popper (Maineville, Ohio) emerged from what Fatis said was just a so-so regular season to star in the Ice Hawks three-game series with the Minnesota Owls.
Popper started all three games against the Owls, where he allowed just six goals on 107 shots, including his 31-save performance in Rochester's 9-1 clincher March 11.
"Karel was outstanding all weekend," Fatis said. "He won that series for us."
Popper was in goal for six of the Ice Hawks' regular season meetings with Twin Cities this year. He won half of those games, including a 4-3 shootout victory Dec. 3. In other words, the Northern Lights went 42-3 in games they didn't face the Rochester netminder this season.
"He can be a difference maker for them," said Largen. "We'll have to try and get some traffic out front and see if we can get pucks through. I don't expect it to be easy."
Fatis said the same of Popper's job. Twin Cities averaged over 45 shots and more than six goals per game throughout the regular season, and that offensive arsenal was one of the primary reasons the Northern Lights ended up winning five of the eight games they played against the Ice Hawks so far.
"They just seem to come and come and come," Fatis said. "It's just sick how much of offensive ability they have. Finding a way to slow them down will be our biggest challenge."
There will be others, of course, for both clubs. But they'll be decided in a rematch in the 2012 Bush Cup Finals, and what a stage it will be.
"This is why you play all year," said Largen. "We wanted it to be Rochester. We worked all year to earn a chance to play them in the finals. This is what it's all about."
Added Fatis: "It's the best time of the year. There is nothing better than playoff hockey. When there is a trophy on the line, that's what it's all about. We're trying to win a trophy. We want that Bush Cup."
2012 Bush Cup Finals
Game 1: 7:05 p.m. Friday, March 16 at the Rochester Recreation Center
Game 2: 3:30 p.m. Sunday, March 18 at the Bloomington Ice Gardens
Game 3: (if necessary) 6:45 p.m. Saturday, March 24 at the Bloomington Ice Gardens