By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. -- Minnesota's top guns -- guys like Tyler Sheehy, Justin Kloos, Vinni Lettieri and Leon Bristedt -- didn't have a point.
Top-end forwards Rem Pitlick and Brent Gates Jr. and offensive defenseman Jake Bischoff each had an assist but didn't put the puck in the net.
It was those "other" Gophers who did in Michigan State on Friday night at Mariucci Arena.
Sophomore defenseman Jack Sadek, who came into the game with only one goal this season, scored two goals in the first period, and sophomore forward Darian Romanko, who also had just one goal this year, and junior defenseman Ryan Collins, who started the night with two goals, scored in the third period as No. 5 Minnesota skated to a 4-0 victory over the Spartans in the opener of the Big Ten regular-season ending series.
Sophomore goalie Eric Schierhorn didn't have to make any spectacular saves but he was sharp when tested and covered up loose pucks to earn his fifth shutout of the seasons. He stopped 24 Spartans' shots.
Sheehy, the Big Ten's leading scorer with 20 goals and 52 points, had four shots on goal, including a breakaway in the third period, but was held scoreless.
Kloos, Minnesota's second-leading scorer (17-24-41) had one shot and no goals. Lettieri, third in team scoring (18-17-35), had two shots and neither went in the net.
Minnesota is the fourth-highest scoring teams in the nation, averaging 3.85 goals per game, but showed it has excellent balance and can play solid defensively, keeping the Spartans' offense from getting started with aggressive forechecking in the offensive zone.
"We competed hard. You couldn't ask for more energy or effort,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "We played a darn good team. I thought we struggled at times in our own end of the rink.
"We gave them up too many point shots. Obviously, with three goals coming from that area, it's something we have to look at.''
When the Spartans did create some pressure in the offensive zone, they couldn't set up quality shots from the dangerous scoring areas.
"They did a good job of getting right into our space. There wasn't a lot of space out there and we struggled to make plays,'' Anastos said. "When we got possession, they clogged the front of the net pretty good, and for some reason, our pucks never seem to find their way through.''
Sam Saliba and linemate Mason Appleton and Brennan Sanford led MSU with three shots on goal apiece. Patrick Khodorenko and linemate Villiam Haag each had two shots on goal, as did defenseman Zach Osburn.
Early in the third period, with the Gophers up 2-0, freshman defenseman Anthony Scarsella moved in the from the left point and let go with a low shot and that was stopped by Schierhorn, who then made a solid save on Saliba on the rebound.
"We had some point shots but either we didn't get them through to the net or we didn't get a rebound or a bounce to land on someone's stick,'' Anastos said. "We needed that one goal to make it 2-1 in the second or third periods to give us momentum.''
With the victory, Minnesota (23-10-2, 14-5-0-0) wraps up its fourth straight Big Ten regular-season title and sixth consecutive title overall, starting with two Western Collegiate Hockey Association championships in 2012 and 2013.
The Gophers are six points ahead of second-place Wisconsin with one game remaining. With the loss, the Spartans are assured of finishing sixth, with fifth-place Michigan now eight points up.
MSU and Minnesota close out the series and regular season at 8 p.m. Saturday on the Gophers' Senior Night at Mariucci Arena.
Sadek gave Minnesota a 2-0 lead with shots from the right point -- the first on a wrister at 7:52 and the second a slap shot at 16:36.
After a scoreless second period, the Spartans had a good start to the third period, with some pressure in the offensive zone, but they couldn't finish a couple quality chances.
With 8:29 left, the Gophers boosted their lead to 3-0 with forwards Jack Ramsey and Darian Romanko combining on a 2-on-1 rush, with Ramsey feeding a perfect pass into the slot, where a hard-charging Romanko fired the puck past MSU goalie John Lethemon (24 saves).
Collins made it 4-0 with 48 seconds left when a shot from the top of the right circle eluded Lethemon.
"We worked hard and were in the game most of the way but we didn't get the offense we wanted,'' said Appleton, the Spartans' leading scorer with 11 goals and 18 assists for 29 points. "We didn't generate enough and we had to play catch-up.
"We need to be better in our defensive zone. We need to get pucks out quicker. We can't be stuck in the zone for 20-30 seconds at a time. Then, by the time you get the puck into the O-zone, you're tired and you have to change.''
The Spartans skated off two Gophers' power plays, but Minnesota did score its first goal -- by Sadek - four seconds after a penalty to Carson Gatt expired early in the first period.
Technically, Michigan State had three power plays, but the last one, in the last minute of play, lasted for two seconds before the Spartans took a penalty.
Anastos said one of the challenges of playing a team like the Gophers is their depth. You can contain the top six-seven players but there are others that can contribute offensively.
"When you shut down certain things, they have other people that rise to the occasion,'' he said. "(Sadek) stepped up and got a couple goals. So did some other guys.''
Appleton came away impressed the Gophers, who are 3-0 against MSU this season.
"They're a little different playing them on this big ice. They're a really good team, truly a good team fighting for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament,'' Appleton said. "They're a deep team with 12 forwards who can play.''
And are the Gophers the best team the Spartans have played this season?
"They're definitely one of them, Denver, too,'' Appleton said.
SPARTAN POTPOURRI: Before Friday night, Michigan State had not been shut out all season. The Spartans have been held to one goal in nine games. The last time they've been shut out was last season against Wisconsin -- a 3-0 loss on Dec. 12, 2015, at Munn Arena. MSU has blanked one opponent this season -- Michigan, 3-0, on Jan. 20, at Yost Arena in Ann Arbor. ... After sitting out the last 15 games as a healthy scratch, freshman Anthony Scarsella was back in the lineup on Friday playing in his seventh game this season and first since Jan. 6 at Wisconsin. With Scarsella in, two other freshman defensemen were scratched -- Butrus Ghafari (healthy) and Damian Chrcek (upper body). ... Freshman goalie John Lethemon made his third-straight start, a career high, after starting both games at Ohio State last weekend. Lethemon has started six of MSU's last eight games. Minney had a run of eight-consecutive starts from Nov. 10 against Ferris State to Dec. 29 vs. Western Michigan in the Great Lakes Invitational.
MSU TOURNAMENT PICTURE: The Spartans playoff opponent in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament will be decided Saturday but it won't have anything to do with their game against Minnesota.
Michigan State will face the fourth-place team -- Ohio State or Penn State. On Friday, the Buckeyes won and the Nittany Lions lost, so OSU climbed ahead of PSU by one point. If the Buckeyes win again at Wisconsin, they'll clinch third place and get set to face Michigan State in the tournament for the third time in the last four seasons.
If Penn State wins at Michigan Saturday and Ohio State loses or ties (and loses in the shootout) at Wisconsin, the Nittany Lions will finish third and play the Spartans.
MSU is 0-4 vs. PSU and 1-3 vs. OSU.
Next Thursday's Big Ten quarterfinals are set for 4:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Game times won't be set until Sunday.
IN THE BIG TEN: Penn State saw its hopes of overtaking second-place Wisconsin, with the scenario of a sweep of Michigan and two Badgers losses vs. Ohio State, came to an end Friday with its 3-2 loss at Michigan.
The Wolverines overcame a 2-1 deficit early in the third period and scored two goals within three minutes -- by Tony Calderone and Brendan Warren -- to take a 3-2 lead and held on to upend the No. 11 Nittany Lions.
Penn State's loss clinched second place for No. 16 Wisconsin, despite getting routed by Ohio State, 5-1, ending their quest of a share of the Big Ten title or even an outright conference crown.
But even worse, the Badgers dropped in the PairWise Rankings (PWR) to No. 16, which is out of contention for the NCAA Tournament. A team has to be rated no lower than No. 14 to earn an NCAA berth, because the 15th and 16th spots usually go to the conference champions of Atlantic Hockey and the WCHA and those teams are usually ranked lower in the PWR.
However, the door is still open for any Big Ten team, including Michigan State and Michigan, to earn an NCAA berth. Just win the Big Ten Tournament and you're in. And with the Badgers finishing second and getting a first-round bye in the tournament, they would have to win only two games to capture the title. The bottom four teams would need three wins in three days to skate off as Big Ten champs.
PLAYOFF TIME: Four other conferences -- ECACH, Hockey East, Atlantic Hockey and the WCHA -- are playing their second round of their playoff series this weekend, while the National Collegiate Hockey Conference opened its best-of-three quarterfinal series.
There was only one upset in the four NCHC series on Friday. No. 6 seed Omaha upended No. 3 Western Michigan, 2-1. No. 1 Denver, No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth and No. 4 North Dakota also posted series-opening victories.
Denver, ranked No. 1 in the polls and in the PWR, rolled past No. 8 seed Colorado College, 4-1; UMD edged Miami, 5-4 in overtime, and North Dakota topped St. Cloud State, 5-2.
In the WCHA's best-of-three semifinals, No. 4 Bowling Green upset No. 1 Bemidji State, 4-3 in overtime, and No. 2 Michigan Tech broke a 1-1 tie with four unanswered goals in the third period and cruised to a 5-1 victory.
In Hockey East, No. 10 New Hampshire upset No. 1 UMass-Lowell, 3-1; No. 2 Boston University rallied to defeat No. 8 Northeastern, 3-2 in overtime; No. 3 Boston College routed No. 6 Vermont, 7-0, and No. 4 Notre Dame blanked No. 5 Providence, 5-0.
And in Atlantic Hockey, No. 1 seed Canisius shut out No. 11 Niagara 3-0; No. 2 Air Force 4 blanked Bentley, 4-0; No. 3 Army topped No. 7 Mercyhurst, 6-4, and No. 4 Robert Morris defeated No. 5 Holy Cross, 6-3.
All series continue Saturday, with deciding Game 3s, if necessary, set for Sunday.