Minneapolis, MN – Perhaps more than any weekend this year, question marks abounded for the Minnesota Gophers heading into their series against the Michigan State Spartans.
Coming off a disappointing split at Notre Dame, the Gophers have had a hard time stringing wins together this year, and they’ll be forced to finish the regular season without three of their best players. Captain Ben Meyers, forward Matthew Knies, and defenseman Brock Faber have all joined the US Olympic team for the month of February. Throw in an injury to Jaxon Nelson and an early departure of goalie Jack LaFontaine to the NHL, and the Gopher roster has more potential holes than at any point this season.
If there was ever a ‘get healthy’ opponent for the Gophers, though, it’s Michigan State. The Spartans last beat the Gophers in the 2019-2020 season. Since then, Minnesota swept the regular season series against the Spartans in 20-21, won in overtime in that season’s Big Ten tournament, and Michigan State in East Lansing in early January this season.
The Gophers (15RW-9RL-2OTW-2OTL Overall, 11-4-1-2 B1G) took care of business against the Spartans (9-15-2-1, 4-13-1-0), overcoming adversity in both weekend games to earn a hard-fought sweep and keep the hopes of a Big Ten regular season title alive.
Minnesota came out Friday looking to answer some critics and dominated the early stretches of the game. The Gophers controlled the play, peppering MSU goalie Pierce Charleson with quality shots. A hallmark of this Gopher team, however, is goals being tough to come by, and Charleson kept his team in the game early on by turning aside all of Minnesota’s shots. The Spartans took advantage of their limited opportunities, scoring on a turnover-turned-breakaway early and adding another goal by the middle of the first period to hold a 2-0 lead going into the 2nd.
The Gophers came storming back after the halfway-point of the 2nd, with Rhett Pitlick scoring his first Gopher goal with a one-time snapshot from the high slot to get Minnesota on the board at 2-1. Aaron Huglen banked the puck off of Charleson from behind the goal-line and in to tie the game less than two minutes after the Pitlick goal. In the third, Minnesota scored twice before the 10-minute mark (Blake McLaughlin and Tristan Broz) to pull away with a 4-2 win.
Saturday’s game was a tight contest, again with the Gophers having the better of the play / chances, but again with all the same goal-scoring difficulty. Senior defenseman Ben Brinkman scored (!!) his first of the season just 1:39 into the game to put Minnesota up 1-0. The goal was Brinkman’s first since November 9, 2018, in his freshman season. All told, Brinkman went 123 games between goals, and this one was an important one, given how difficult it has been for Minnesota to score goals.
The Gophers aren’t getting any help from their special teams, either. Minnesota’s powerplay has been atrocious of late, going just 2-for-42 since the beginning of December entering Saturday’s game. The Gophers had plenty of early PP chances in Saturday’s game, but could not score another goal, and a MSU goal off a weird bounce early in the second period led to a 1-1 tie and a gritty battle to the finish.
Sammy Walker scored on a one-time shot with an extra attacker / delayed penalty halfway through the third to put Minnesota up 2-1, and on the ensuing powerplay Walker scored again to make it 3-1. The Gophers had been 0-4 on the PP Saturday before Walker finally scored on the last powerplay opportunity of the night. The 1-for-5 effort makes it three of Minnesota’s last 47, just north of 6%.
Under the radar was goalkeeper Justen Close’s solid, steady play. Michigan State had plenty of opportunities to score goals and apply pressure, but Close was solid, giving up just three goals on the weekend on 49 shots to help Minnesota earn the sweep.
Also under the radar (or at least mostly off the scoresheet) was the re-emergence of defenseman Jackson LaCombe. The junior defenseman has struggled throughout the first half of this season, but has been good since the break, and was spectacular against MSU. LaCombe was dynamic, leading rushes and crashing the net when the opportunity presented itself. LaCombe tallied assists on Walker’s final two goals of Saturday’s game, but if he continues playing like this, expect plenty more offense from the talented junior.
In other Big Ten action this weekend, Michigan was idle, while Ohio State took five points from Wisconsin and Notre Dame swept Penn State. Minnesota currently sits in third place at 37 points, five points ahead of Notre Dame (32), two points behind Michigan (39), and five behind the Buckeyes (42), who have two games in hand on the Wolverines, Gophers, and Irish.
It’s shaping up to be a battle to the finish, and with just three regular season series left, it feels like any one of the top three has a chance to win the title.
The first step on that road for the Gophers is a road matchup with conference-leading Ohio State. The Buckeyes host the Gophers next weekend (6PM Eastern time starts in both games) before taking a week off and then traveling to Michigan for the regular season finale.