By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. – Minnesota is sniffing another Big Ten regular-season title. Michigan State, in the role of a spoiler, is eager to keep the Gophers from earning their fourth consecutive conference championship.
And of course, both the Spartans (7-22-3 overall, 3-13-2 Big Ten) and Gophers (22-10-2, 13-5-0-0) are eager to build some momentum and get their games at the highest level possible going into the upcoming Big Ten Tournament.
Those are the scenarios for both teams as they close out the regular season with a two-game series at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at Mariucci Arena.
For the fourth straight weekend, Michigan State is facing a dynamic offensive team which boasts highly skilled forwards and a potent power play.
In their last six games – four against Ohio State and two vs. Penn State – the Spartans are 1-5 but they’ve been competitive and were effective, at times, in containing the Buckeyes’ and Nittany Lions’ top players.
But untimely penalties, penalty-killing issues and defensive gaffes allowed the opposition to thrive and frustrate Michigan State’s players and coaches.
The challenge facing the Spartans this weekend may be even tougher because the Gophers are arguably the most balanced team in the conference, and will be highly motivated because first place is on the line and so is a No. 1 seed in one of the four NCAA regionals in the NCAA Tournament.
In addition, it’s Minnesota’s final two home games and Saturday is the Gophers’ Senior Night.
“This weekend will be huge as far as confidence and momentum are concerned going into the Big Ten Tournament,’’ MSU senior right wing and captain Joe Cox said. “We have to have two solid games and that would be get us more ready for the Big Tens than a week of practice.’’
The Gophers are the fourth-highest scoring team in the nation, averaging 3.85 goals per game, and their power play is also No. 4, with a success rate of 25.9 percent.
Minnesota has seven forwards with 10 goals or more, led by sophomore Tyler Sheehy with 20 goals and 32 assists for 52 points, 6th in the nation. Seniors Vinni Lettieri and Justin Kloos have 18 and 17 goals, respectively.
“There a skilled team and they’ll put the puck in the net if you give them (power play) chances,’’ Cox said. “It’s so many minor details that we have to do, like with our sticks in the shot lanes and blocking shots and other things we can tweak in order to be successful. But we have to have good sticks.’’
Over the last 10 games, the Gophers have scored 42 goals for a 4.2 average during that stretch. They scored six games in two games, five goals two times, and three goals in three games.
“They’re pretty slippery. They like to make that extra move and we have to anticipate that they’ll try to beat us 1-on-1, try to suck guys in and make seam passes,’’ senior defenseman Rhett Holland said. “We need to be strong in the neutral zone and make them want to dump the puck in.
“They won’t want to do it and maybe we’ll get some turnovers and rush the other way. We need to keep them outside on the walls, make it hard for them to get inside and make them pay a price.’’
The Spartans saw glimpse of Minnesota’s skill, speed and strong power play three months ago when Minnesota swept MSU, 4-2, 4-2, Dec. 9-10, at Munn Arena. The Gophers went 0-for-5 on the power play in the first game and 2-for-3 in the second contest. The first power-play goal tied it 2-2 with 6;27 left in the second period, and the winner was scored on a power play with 8:46 left in the third period.
“We’re playing a team that’s playing really well and feels good about their game. They’re competing for a league championship so I’m sure they be right on top of their game,’’ MSU coach Tom Anastos said. “Their power play is a major factor in their game, and it’s been good all season and it’s been great of late.
“We’re trying to work on ways to slow them down. The best would be to not to take any penalties.’’
Despite sitting in first place in the Big Ten and No 5 in the PairWise Rankings, which mimics the NCAA Committee’s formula for selecting and seeding teams in the 16-team NCAA Tournament, the Gophers have still lost three games in the last four weekends.
They lost at Ohio State, 5-4, on Feb. 10, lost to Wisconsin, 3-2 on Feb. 24 and lost at Michigan, 5-3, last Friday.
Every one of those teams had to play at a high level and execute at both ends of the rink to pull off victories against Minnesota.
“Everything has to come together,’’ Anastos said. “Ohio State played quite well in one game against Minnesota but they gave up six power-play goals and ended up losing.
“They’re probably as balanced of a team as we’ll have played all season. They have a lot of depth, more so than in the past year or maybe even two. Minnesota’s defense has grown a lot since the beginning of the season. They’re defending well and attacking very successfully. They play with a lot of speed and possess the puck very well.’’
Two years ago, Michigan State and Minnesota went down to the final weekend battling for first place in the Big Ten. The Spartans lost at home to Michigan in their series opener, while Minnesota defeated Penn State to take a two-point lead.
MSU won the second game at Michigan, 2-1, but the Gophers, about 90 minutes later, went back into first and claimed the regular season title with a win over PSU, with the Spartans finishing second.
Michigan State would love to play spoiler and win a game or two and keep Minnesota from winning the regular-season title.
“We want to go give two great efforts and ultimately be a factor in who wins the regular season title in the Big Ten,’’ Anastos said. “At the same time, the most important aspect is to get our game at a place where you want it to be when we go into the Big Ten Tournament.’’
BIG ICE ADJUSTMENTS: For the second time this season, Michigan State will play on a much wider ice surface than it’s used to at Munn Arena and most other rinks in college hockey.
Mariucci is Olympic size – 200 feet long and 100 feet wide, which is 15 feet wider than most arenas.
Since the Spartans have so many freshmen, Coach Tom Anastos will have his team practice at Mariucci Arena Thursday after they get to Minneapolis, instead of practicing at home and then traveling and not skating in the opposing area until Friday’ morning skate. The Kohl Center at Wisconsin in 97 feet wide, three feet short of Olympic size, but still 12 feet bigger than normal-size rinks.
“I didn’t think we handled it well in Madison. Our play in our own zone was the worst it’s been all season,’’ Anastos said. “We wanted them to have two opportunities to skate there and get a feel for it.
“I don’t think you have to radically change your game. It’s a mindset. The idea is to get comfortable with it. The space between the (faceoff) dots and distance to the net is the same as any rink. The length is the same. There’s just a lot of space on the sides.
“But you do have be aware of that and of your positioning in the defensive zone.’’
Holland and Cox are veterans of playing on the larger surfaces at Minnesota and Wisconsin.
“You really can’t change too much. You just have to play smart and not get caught running out of the corner and getting beat because it’s a long way back,’’ Holland said.
“The distance from the dots to the net is the same. It’s just bigger on the outside, so we don’t have to change our game,’’ Cox said. “You have to play smarter and not be taking lunges toward the perimeter and stay more inside.
“With the bigger ice, there’s more room to play around with the puck on the perimeter. Shots are going to be longer from there and those shots, I think (goalies) Ed (Minney) and John (Lethemon) will swallow up.’’
SCOUTING THE GOPHERS: Before Minnesota played Michigan State on Dec. 10-11, the Gophers were 5-5-2 in their previous 12 games. But starting with the 4-2, 4-2 (empty-net goals in each game) sweep of the Spartans, Minnesota won seven straight and is 15-5 in their last 20.
However, the Gophers have split three of their last four series – 1-1 at Ohio State; 2-0 at Penn State; 1-1 at home vs. Wisconsin, and 1-1 at Michigan.
Minnesota has nine players, including one defenseman, with 18 points or more. Tyler Sheehy is the top scorer with 20 goals and 32 assist for 52 points, with senior Justin Kloos second with 17 goals and 24 assists for 41 points.
Senior Vinni Lettieri is third with 18 goals and 17 assists for 35 points, followed by junior Leon Bristedt (12-20-32), senior defenseman Jake Bischoff (4-25-29), freshman Rem Pitlick (13-15-28), junior Mike Szmatula (10-15-25), Brent Gates Jr. (14-5-19) and senior Taylor Cammarata (5-13-18).
The defense is led by Bischoff, junior Steve Johnson, freshman standout Ryan Lindgren, junior Ryan Collins, sophomore Jack Sadek and freshman Ryan Zuhlsdorf.
In goal, sophomore Eric Schierhorn has stated every game. He has a 22-10-0 record, a 2.73 goals-against average and a .902 saves percentage.
Minnesota is a veteran team five seniors and four juniors in the lineup on a regular basis. There’s seven or eight sophomores in the lineup and only three or four freshmen.
THE RIVALRY: The Gophers hold a 112-45-15 lead over the Spartans in a series that started with a 5-0 Minnesota home victory on Feb. 15, 1928. The teams didn’t resume the series until the 1949-50 season.
Last season, the Gophers swept MSU 5-2 and 3-1 in mid-January in Minneapolis, but the teams split at Munn Arena in early March with Minnesota winning the series opener, 4-2, and the Spartans dominating the second game, 5-0, with goalie Jake Hildebrand earning a shutout in his last victory at MSU. The last time Michigan State swept Minnesota was on Feb. 6-7, 1976, at Williams Arena in Minneapolis. The Spartans won 4-2 and 5-4 in overtime. Amo Bessone was coaching Michigan State and Herb Brooks was behind the Gophers’ bench.
Coach Don Lucia is in his 18th season at Minnesota, after stops at Alaska Fairbanks and Colorado College. He has a career record of 716-384-99 and is 437-2-70 at Minnesota. Lucia has led the Gophers to two NCAA championships (2002, 2003), 12 NCAA appearances and five trips to the Frozen Four.
LIKELY PLAYOFF OPPONENT: There’s a good chance that Michigan State will be matched up against Penn State in next week’s Big Ten Tournament at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. The Nittany Lions are in third place, two points ahead of Ohio State and five points behind second-place Wisconsin.
Penn State plays at fifth-place Michigan and appears it will finish third and play the No. 6 seed, and that’s likely to be the Spartans, who trail the Wolverines by five points.
But MSU could still end up facing Ohio State – for the third time in the last four seasons of the Big Ten tourney – or even Wisconsin if Penn State earns at least five points in Ann Arbor and the Badgers get swept by Ohio State.
The Spartans will play at 4:30 pm. or 8 p.m. next Thursday in the Big Ten quarterfinals, and would have to win three straight games to earn the automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.
TOP LINE CLICKS: Two months ago, freshman center Sam Saliba had one goal and four assists in his first 19 games. But starting with MSU’s second game at Penn State on Jan. 14, Saliba has eight goals and three assists in 13 games, including two, two-goal games.
With nine goals, Saliba is MSU’s second-leading goal scorer and with 16 points, he’s tied for third in team scoring with fellow-freshman Patrick Khodorenko (7-9-16).
Starting with the Spartans game at Michigan, Feb. 11, Coach Tom Anastos moved Saliba to a line with sophomore right wing Mason Appleton and freshman left wing Taro Hirose, and Patrick Khodorenko, who had been paired with Appleton and Hirose all season, moved to a unit with Villiam Haag and an assortment of other wingers, including Thomas Ebbing, Dylan Pavelek and Logan Lambdin.
Saliba has shown a solid scoring touch with three goals in four games against Michigan and three in four contests vs. Ohio State. He has four goals in his last five games.
“They’re learning to play off each other very well, and now that Sam has gained some exposure at this level, the game is starting to slow down for him,’’ Anastos said. “So, he’s not as hurried. If you look at some games earlier, he might have had some scoring opportunities but he was just trying to get rid of the puck.
“Now, he’s got a thought process that’s happening before the puck comes to him. That’s what we saw in junior hockey. So, we’re not surprised by that. It just takes time and his confidence is really growing.’’
In last Saturday’s 5-3 loss at Ohio State, Saliba had two goals, Appleton had three assists and Hirose was on the ice for all three Spartan goals.
“That line was pretty effective last weekend, and Appleton was sick on Friday on Saturday,’’ Anastos said. “But he played through it and raised his game. They were really good on Saturday.
“Sam is getting to the net and he’s looking to shoot more. And we’re going to the net a little better as a team. All three guys on that line have the wherewithal to find guys on the ice.
“Maybe when the first option isn’t available to them, they will hold on to the puck and find the next option. That line is growing and building some chemistry.’’
MICHIGAN CONNECTION: Sophomore Brent Gates Jr. last season became the first player from the state of Michigan to play for the Gophers. Gates, a 6-foot-2, 197-pound left wing from Grand Rapids, was injured for a big part of last season and had three goals and seven points.
This season, there’s another Michiganian on the Gophers’ roster. Mike Szmatula, 5-foot-9, 182-pound center from Commerce Township, transferred to Minnesota after two seasons at Northeastern. Szmatula, 24, was Northeastern’s second-leading scorer (14-15-39) in 2013-14 and No. 3 (13-16-29) in 2014-16. He sat out last season at Minnesota.
There’s only four non-Minnesotans on the Gophers’ roster. In addition to the Michigan connection, goalie Eric Shierhorn is from Anchorage, Alaska, and forward Leon Bristedt is from Stockholm, Sweden.
IN THE BIG TEN: The regular-season champion will be crowned this weekend and it’ll be either Minnesota or Wisconsin celebrating the championship.
The first-place Gophers (22-10-2, 13-5-0-0, 39 points) hold a three-point lead over second-place Wisconsin (19-12-1, 12-6-0-0, 36), which plays host to fourth-place Ohio State (18-10-6, 9-8-1-1, 29 points) on Friday and Saturday. The Badgers need a sweep of the Buckeyes and two Gophers’ losses at home against Michigan State to claim the outright conference title.
In the other series, third-place Penn State (21-9-2, 10-8-1-0, 31) is at fifth-place Michigan (11-18-3, 4-12-2-2, 16), also on Friday and Saturday.
The Nittany Lions, who trail Wisconsin by five points, could still finish second if they sweep the Wolverines or win and tie and win in a shootout and the Badgers lose two against Ohio State.
If PSU and Wisconsin end up tied, the Nittany Lions will get the higher seed because of they’ll win the tiebreaker with a 3-1 edge in the season series with the Badgers.
Penn State is two points ahead of Ohio State and the Buckeyes could still overtake the Nittany Lions and finish in third place.
Minnesota can’t finish any lower than second place so the Gophers are guaranteed a bye in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. If they finish first, they’ll play the winner of the fourth-place vs. fifth-place game. If Minnesota slips to second, it’ll play the No. 3 vs. No. 6 winner.