Neil's Notebook: Spartans Play Gophers Tough in Hard-Fought Series
Feb. 2, 2014
By Neil Koepke
MINNEAPOLIS - In 125 minutes of hockey - six periods and a five-minute overtime - Michigan State held the No. 1 team in the nation to three goals in two games.
Unfortunately for the Spartans, it wasn't enough to produce an upset of the fourth-highest scoring team in college hockey, one that averages 3.65 goals a game.
That's because the Gophers are pretty good defensively, too, and it showed on Saturday as Minnesota blanked Michigan State 1-0, in front of 9,942 fans Mariucci Arena.
The Spartans survived the Gophers' early surge in the first period in which Minnesota outshot MSU 17-4 and scored the only goal of the game. But the Spartans got better as the game went along and they generated some quality scoring chances in the second period and early in the third.
MSU couldn't get that one shot to find the back of the net, and the Gophers held on for a well-earned victory in the second game of the Big Ten series, which started with a 2-2 tie and an MSU shootout win on Friday night.
In the third period Saturday, MSU's Michael Ferrantino had opportunity in the left circle but his wrist shot hit the right goal post behind Minnesota goaltender Adam Wilcox at 3:02.
Two minutes later, Thomas Ebbing's shot from the right circle was stopped by Wilcox but the puck bounced dangerously in the crease. The Spartans' Mackenzie MacEachern tried to tap in the rebound but Hudson Fasching of Minnesota reached out with his stick to chip it out of the crease and away from the onrushing MacEachern.
A few seconds later, Joe Cox of the Spartans got open in the slot and took a pass from behind the net. He let go with a quick wrist shot that was blocked by a Gopher defenseman.
The Spartans had their chances to tie it but didn't have the finishing touch around the net, and the top-ranked Gophers (19-2-5 overall, 8-0-2-0 Big Ten) extended their unbeaten streak to 14 games at 10-0-4.
But before victory was secured, the Gophers had to survive a shot by the Spartans' Matt Berry from in front with one second left. Berry took a pass from behind the net from Lee Reimer and snapped off a shot that hit the side of the net, just before the final buzzer sounded.
Despite the loss, the Spartans (8-13-4, 2-5-3-3 Big Ten) managed to get two points from Friday's shootout win, and competed hard and played well in both games.
Three goals is the lowest scoring output for any two-game series or two games in tournament play by the Gophers this season. In a 2-2 tie and 3-2 win against MSU in early December, Minnesota scored five goals in the series.
"As road games go, I thought our guys left everything they had on the ice tonight. They had a great effort,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said after Saturday's series finale.
"I'm happy with the effort but we have to learn to finish our good opportunities in front of the net. It takes a certain skill and talent and we're going to keep working on that.''
After Friday's game, in which MSU jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period and Minnesota tied it with a late first-period power-play and an early goal in the third period, the Spartans figured the Gophers would be energized early on and tough to handle.
They were right.
Minnesota dominated the opening period with 17 shots on goal, but only one got past Hildebrand. Kyle Rau pounced on a rebound in the slot and fired. The puck hit Hildebrand and deflected up and behind the Spartan goalie and into the net.
"We were expecting they would throw everything they had at us and they did,'' Anastos said. "We felt we took a punch and weathered the storm. As the game went on, we got better
"Coming out of the first period down 1-0, I felt we could build on the fact that it was a one-shot game. I liked our second period and really liked our team in the third period.''
On Friday, MSU created a lot more chances by forechecking hard and forcing the Gopher defensemen to give up the puck. The Spartans turned many turnovers into great scoring chances. Minnesota was much better on Saturday.
"The script of the game went kind of like I thought it would go,'' Anastos said. "We anticipated that. They came at us strong. But we know we had more in us and we felt that was as good as they were going to play.
"We just said, `OK, we're a shot away from being in this game.' The second period was more even in play. By the third period, I thought we were even better.''
For sure, Minnesota was dangerous every time it rushed the puck into the MSU zone, and they had three power plays in the second period with a great chance to go up by two goals. But Hildebrand was outstanding, the penalty killing solid and the defense did a solid job of defending against a team of highly skilled players with great hockey sense.
"Between our goaltender and team defense working together, we've done a pretty good job recently, with the exception of the game against Michigan and the Ohio State game (two weeks ago).
"Minnesota played hard tonight. They were blocking shots, backchecking hard, defending well. Space was hard to come by.
"Even if you had an open look, here comes bodies flying, much like it was for us last night and even at times tonight.''
Spartan captain Greg Wolfe said the Gophers defensemen have to be pressured if a team is going to exploit Minnesota defensively.
"If we don't come into their zone with possession, we give them time to get the puck. The rink is so wide that they know how to use it,'' Wolfe said. "If we don't pressure them, their breakout looks flawless. They hit the open guy, hit the guys with speed.
"We have to attack in groups of five and chip the puck to places where we can go get it.''
After the Spartans showed they can compete against the best team in the nation, Anastos wants to see consistency from his team, --that they'll play as hard and as intense against teams not ranked No. 1.
"When you're playing the top three teams in the league, you come in with tons of respect and you know you'll have to be ready to play or you'll be embarrassed,'' he said. "We have to approach every game like you're playing a top team.''
HILDEBRAND SUPER SHARP: MSU sophomore goalie Jake Hildebrand had two standout games against Minnesota. He was solid on Friday and made a difference again Saturday with a 37-save performance, including 16 in the opening period.
He made several clutch stops in the third period while the Spartans were taking some risks in an attempt to tie the game at 1-1.
"Hildy played unbelievable again,'' MSU senior right wing and captain Greg Wolfe said.
Coach Tom Anastos agreed with his captain.
"He's been outstanding. He really comes up with the big save when we need it,'' Anastos said of Hildebrand "He's very steady, really tracks the puck well and he gives our team confidence.
"He's been very reliable and he's playing with confidence. He did that all weekend long.''
Hildebrand had praise for his team and for the Gophers.
"We played the No. 1 team in the country to a one-goal weekend. We competed down to the last second and had some scoring chances right at the last second,'' Hildebrand said
"There's a lot of positives to take away this weekend, especially our compete level, the way we blocked shots.''
And what about the Gophers?
"That's a great team,'' Hildebrand said. "There's a reason they're the No. 1 team in the country. They're very skilled offensively and they make great plays.''
GREAT SAVE, DARNELL: Jake Hildebrand wasn't the only Spartan to reject Gophers scoring chances on Saturday.
Early in the first period, the puck slid under Hildebrand and rolled through the crease and was right on the goal line when MSU junior forward Brent Darnell swooped in and got his stick on the puck and backhanded it out of danger.
But one referee called it a goal, feeling the puck had completely crossed the goal line. But the officials reviewed the play on the monitor it the penalty box and saw what most people saw on replays: that the puck never completely crossed over the goal line.
That kept the game at 0-0 but a few minutes later, the Gophers struck for the only goal of the game - by Kyle Rau at 6:44 of the first period.
WILL THEY MEET AGAIN? Michigan State closes its season-series against Minnesota at 0-2-2-2. With regulation and overtime victories worth three points and two points awarded for a shootout win and one point for a shootout loss, the Spartans earned four points of 12 points in the series against the Gophers - two points for each shootout victory.
There's a good chance the Spartans and Gophers could meet again in the Big Ten Championship in St. Paul, Minn., on March 20-22. If the Spartans finish fourth or fifth in the conference and win their quarterfinal game - probably against Ohio State - they'll likely face the No. 1 seed, which will likely be the Gophers. This time, though, it'll be on a NHL-regulation ice sheet - 85 feet wide rather than the 100 feet at Mariucci Arena.
IN THE BIG TEN: Ohio State gave up two goals in the first period against Penn State on Saturday and then rallied for a 5-2 victory and sweep of the two-game series. Michigan and Wisconsin experienced their first Big Ten shootout after playing to a 2-2 tie at Yost Arena. Michigan won the shootout, 1-0. On Friday, the Wolverines defeated the Badgers, 3-1.
Ohio State is next up for Michigan State. The teams meet at 6:30 p.m. on Friday at Munn Arena and at 4 p.m. on Saturday.
The following week, the Spartans are back on the road, as they visit Penn State for the first time. MSU swept the Nittany Lions, 3-0 and 3-2, on Jan. 17-18.
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