Minneapolis, MN – For five periods this weekend, it looked as if nothing could stop the Gophers continuing their winning streak.
In the third period Saturday, Minnesota did as much to beat themselves as Michigan State did.
A sloppy final period of Saturday’s game put a slight tarnish on an otherwise successful weekend, as the Gophers (13-11-4 Overall, 8-6-4-3 B1G) split with Michigan State (14-13-1, 10-7-1). The split moved both teams into a tie for 2nd place in the conference at 31 points (along with Ohio State), two points behind B1G-leading Penn State.
MSU’s John Lethemon has been the best goalie in the country according to Sv%, but the Gophers were able to get to him early on Friday. Blake McLaughlin scored on Minnesota’s first shot on goal at 1:11 to give the Gophers an early lead. Mitchell Lewandowski scored for MSU on the powerplay at 8:18 to tie it at 1-1, which was the score line after the first.
The Gophers scored twice in the second: first, at 4:45 when Sampo Ranta poked a rebound past Lethemon to give Minnesota a 2-1 lead, and then again with just 1.9 seconds left in the period on a Scott Reedy rebound to break the momentum MSU had started to build throughout the back half of the second.
Reedy tacked on an empty netter late in the third to win it 4-1 for the Gophers.
Saturday started out just as promising as Friday, as the Gophers put up 18 shots to Michigan State’s 9 and dominated the play. However, they only were able to score one goal at 15:38 on a Reedy wrister. Lethemon kept the Spartans in the game as Michigan State weathered the storm.
The Gophers had several powerplay chances to try and increase their lead, but Minnesota’s special-teams struggles continued and it was the Green & White tied it late in the 2nd on a Patrick Khodorenko goal at 15:36. The Gophers came back to take another lead on Blake McLaughlin’s goal at 18:12, and took a slim one-goal margin with them into the third.
Coming into the weekend, the Gophers were the second-least penalized team in the nation, and hadn’t taken a penalty all day Saturday going to the third. The referees saw some injustice in that, calling two rather ticky-tack penalties on Gopher defensemen early in the third. Minnesota killed off the first penalty, but MSU scored on a shot from the point at 5:04 to tie the game, and the momentum completely shifted in favor of the Spartans.
Minnesota didn’t seem to have their crisp passing, good puck decisions, or quick skating that had been such a hallmark of the team since the Christmas break, and MSU started winning puck battles and bottling the Gophers up in their own zone. Before you knew it, the Spartans had added two more goals and won the game 4-2 after dominating the period.
Minnesota is hovering on the outside looking in for the PairWise Rankings which determine the NCAA tournament field. The Gophers probably need to win 4 of their last 6 regular season games to move into consideration for an at-large bid.
The other way for Minnesota to make the tournament is, of course, to win the Big Ten postseason tournament. That is made much easier if you win the regular season title, and even with a split the Gophers are in good position to do so. Minnesota, MSU and Ohio State are all tied for second place, two points behind leader Penn State. However, both Minnesota and MSU have two games in hand, and the Gophers travel to Penn State later in February with a chance to wrest first place away from the Nittany Lions.
Next weekend, though, is a matchup at Notre Dame. Currently fifth in the conference race with 28 points, the Irish are very much in the battle for home ice in the first round of the playoffs (the first place team gets a bye into the semifinal, while teams 2-4 host teams 5-7 for a best-of-three series). Both games are at 6PM and streamed on NBC Sports Live Extra. Friday’s game is on TV on NBC Sports, while Saturday’s game is not televised.
Post game with coach Motzko & Zuhlsdorf