The Minnesota Golden Gophers entered one of their most pivotal weekends of the season as the underdog against one of the surprises successes of the Big Ten this year.
That status meant little to Minnesota as it came away from the first game of the series with a 4-1 victory over Michigan State and a tie for first in the Big Ten standings on Friday night.
“You’ve got to grind if you’re going to play them,” head coach Bob Motzko said. “We got a couple of breaks with some netfront, tough goals. I thought it was a good ‘grow-up’ game for us because that’s a playoff-type game.”
The Big Ten was all knotted up in the top five spots in the standings where each of those five teams were separated by one single point. Minnesota and Michigan State were tied with 28 points which means this series is an important one for both programs as the final month of the regular season is fully underway.
Minnesota got the fast start it needed by surprising Michigan State goaltender John Lethemon and the 3M Arena at Mariucci crowd with a goal just 1:11 into the frame. Forward Blake McLaughlin drove into the offensive zone and got a weak shot off that never left the ice surface, but it fooled Lethemon for the opening goal.
“I think any goal within the first five minutes is a real confidence booster for not only myself but the team,” McLaughlin said. “Especially as the first shot for us, it was good.”
The Gophers later piled on three more goals, one being an empty netter, thanks to responsible play with and without the puck.
Forward Scott Reedy came away with the team’s final two goals, which gave him the undisputed team lead in goals with 13 this season. The other man in the goal-scoring race, Sampo Ranta, scored the eventual game-winner in the second period.
“We’re both putting pucks at the net and we’re both playing well on our lines,” Reedy said of his and Ranta’s success. “It’s not really a competition, but as long as we’re both putting them in, we’re helping the team.”
The key to Minnesota’s success was dominating the forecheck and the backcheck specifically in the neutral zone. Many offensive chances for Michigan State were denied thanks to active sticks and hard skating on the backcheck for the Gophers. Specifically, the gritty fourth line of Garrett Wait, Jack Perbix and Cullen Munson took the puck away and generated more possession to continually wear down the Michigan State defense.
“The Perbix line gave us great intensity to keep the ball rolling,” Motzko said. “When we have all 12 [forwards] putting [on] pressure and forcing the issue, that bodes well for us.”
On the forecheck, it was the supremely charismatic trio of Ben Meyers, Brannon McManus and Ranta. Meyers continued to build his reputation as one of the most intense skaters on the ice with or without the puck. His pressure along with good stickwork from McManus and Ranta gave the offensively gifted line plenty of chances at one of the nation’s top goaltenders this season.
As well as Meyers’ line, Sammy Walker’s resurgent line with McLaughlin and Reedy was lethal with the puck and in Michigan State’s face without it. They hounded defenders and forwards alike stifling the Spartans’ chances at generating a breakout into the offensive zone.
“When you’re moving your feet, and you’re fighting to get back above it, good things are going to happen,” Motzko said. “McLaughlin was great tonight. You saw him come back and strip the puck a dozen times tonight. That’s when he’s playing his best.”
Correction: A previous edition of the headline to this story misstated the number of consecutive victories for Minnesota. The correct number is six.