By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. – On the final night of the regular season, Michigan State played one its most spirited and intense games of the entire season.
The Spartans competed hard, won some puck battles, made some good plays on offense, defended well and got excellent goaltending from junior Ed Minney against one of the best teams in the nation.
In the end, MSU didn’t win against No. 5-ranked Minnesota, the Big Ten regular-season champion for the fourth straight season.
But the Spartans also didn’t lose.
In an entertaining game, Michigan State scored one goal in the first period and Minnesota found the back of the net early in the third period as the teams played to a 1-1 tie on Saturday night at Mariucci Arena.
Even the shootout was pretty exciting, especially for the Spartans, who won it, 2-1, on goals by Taro Hirose and Zach Osburn. MSU (7-23-4 overall, 3-14-3-1 Big Ten) earned two points for the shootout win while the Gophers (23-10-3, 14-5-1-0) got one point.
Overall, the Spartans were vastly better Saturday in a lot of areas than they were in Friday’s 4-0 loss in the Big Ten series opener, which clinched first place for Minnesota.
“We got beat pretty badly on Friday so we were coming out with a chip on our shoulder, and said we’re not going to let these guys push us around,’’ sophomore defenseman Osburn said. “We came out and played hard, played good defense and Minney played out of his mind.
“We pushed them to overtime, then to a shootout and we were fortunate enough to win the shootout.’’
The Spartans, with Minney playing very well and the defense looking solid, held the high-scoring Gophers scoreless for almost 44 minutes. Minney made 32 saves.
Minnesota tied it at 3:51 of the third period after winning a battle for the puck outside the left circle in the MSU zone. The Gophers converted on a perfect three-way passing play with defenseman Jake Bishoff getting open in front, tapping Rem Pitlick’s pass into a wide-open net after Justin Kloss’ pinpoint pass to Pitlick.
Suddenly, playing with a sense of urgency, the Gophers applied great pressure over the next few minutes but the Spartans responded well and survived a few dangerous scoring attempts by Minnesota.
“Our forwards played really well. There was always a second man on the puck when it was loose,’’ Osburn said. “We were getting pucks deep and putting pressure on their defensemen and causing turnovers.’’
MSU’s penalty-killing units played at a high level, skating off three Minnesota power plays. The Spartans also went 0-for-3 with a manpower advantage.
Going into Saturday’s game, both Michigan State and Minnesota knew where they were going to finish in the Big Ten. But they didn’t know whom they would be playing in the Big Ten Tournament.
Even before Saturday’s game finished, the playoff pairings became official:
The Spartans, the No. 6 seed, will play No. 3 Ohio State at 4:30 p.m. Thursday at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. In the other quarterfinal, No. 5 Michigan faces No. 4 Penn State at 8 p.m. Thursday.
No. 1 Minnesota meets the Michigan-Penn State winner at 8 p.m. Friday, while No. 2 Wisconsin is matched up against the MSU-OSU winner at 4:30 p.m. on Friday.
The Big Ten title game is set for 8 p.m. on Saturday.
With the Saturday’s deadlock, Michigan State ends the regular season with a 5-8-1 road record.
Coach Tom Anastos said his team was much more aggressive on Saturday and did a better job of winning puck battles in the offensive zone and that led to more possession time.
“We made some minor adjustments to our game after Friday and I thought we executed our plan very well, and that’s an awfully good team we’re playing against,’’ Anastos said. “We defended hard, we attacked way better.
“We were smarter coming through the neutral zone and we were able to forecheck more often than not. We got excellent goaltending and that’s critical. Our penalty killing was excellent and we made adjustments against an excellent power play.
“The guys came through in the shootout and it’s nice to be on the winning end of that.’’
Hirose stole the puck behind the net, fought off Gopher defenseman Ryan Lindgren, slipped it to Saliba, also behind the net, and he slid it out front and into the crease. Appleton moved in, let go with a quick shot that was blocked by goalie Eric Schierhorn.
Appleton lost his balance, fell to his knees and still managed to jam the rebound past Schierhorn (26 saves). Appleton had six shots on goal.
“We adjusted some things in the neutral zone and thought we could do some things that would give us more possession and put us in a better place to use dumps and chips,’’ Anastos said.
“I liked the pace we played at, I liked our intensity, our compete level and we had the right mentality. We played together and blocked some shots at key times.
“Minnesota is as good a team as we’ve played all season. They very skilled and they play hard. They’ve won as many games as they have for a reason.’’
Michigan State did another good job of containing most of the Gophers’ most dangerous forwards. Senior Vinni Lettieri had eight shots on goal and Minney stopped them all. Justin Kloos had four, while Minnesota’s top scorer, Tyler Sheehy (20-32-52), was held to two shots on goal.
Without question, the Gophers best period was the third, and they had 13 shots on goal and 21 attempts. But the Spartans didn’t wilt and get frustrated after Minnesota finally tied it early in the third period.
“The key for us was to respond to their goal, to weather the storm, and we were able to do that,’’ Anastos said. “We answered the big moments, like getting a penalty late in the second period and then killing it to start the third. Then they scored but we responded.
“It’s a good way to finish our game preparation for next week at the Big Ten Tournament.’’
Minney said it took him a while to get into the game because Minnesota didn’t have many shots early on. But then the Gophers went on a power play and the Spartan goalie made several excellent saves, and that set the tone for his game the rest of the night.
“I felt really good right from the start but when I made those saves on their power play, I started to get on a roll,’’ said Minney, whose last start was against Penn State on Feb. 25. “I thought our guys did a good job backchecking, talking those late guys and taking sticks.
“So, those passes coming through the middle, they didn’t get too many shots on them, and when they did, I was there.’’
Minney made a game-saving save with one minute left in the third period off a 2-on-1 rush. Kloos, driving to the net down the right wing, took a cross-ice pass to the right of the net and reached out and directed the puck toward the right corner. But Minney made his best save of the night to keep the Spartans from suffering another late heartbreaking loss.
“I saw that pass go across and tried to get my glove out and not give him much room to shoot and luckily it ended up in my glove,’’ Minney said. “It’s nice to go out there and play well as a team and feel good going into the Big Ten Tournament.
“We got a win last weekend at Ohio State and we could have gotten one here. It’s a big confidence boost.’’
SHOOTOUT DRAMA: First, how’s this for a bizarre shootout factoid:
Michigan State is now 4-0 in shootouts against Minnesota, the conference champion for the last four seasons.
It all started in the first season of the Big Ten, 2013-14, when the Spartans and Gophers played to a 2-2 tie and then MSU won the shootout, 1-0, on Dec. 6, 2013, at Munn Arena. Later that season, the teams tied 2-2 at Minnesota on Jan. 31, before the Spartans won the shootout 2-1.
A year later, in the 2014-15 season, the teams tied 3-3 at Munn Arena with MSU winning the shootout, 2-1, on Dec. 6, 2014.
And Saturday’s tie and shootout win at Mariucci keeps the streak going for the Spartans.
The Gophers started first Saturday with Vinni Lettieri’s high shot glanced off goalie Ed Minney’s arm or shoulder and went past the net. MSU’s Joe Cox tried to deke in close but lost possession to end the first round. Minnesota’s Justin Kloos made a great play and great shot to the top right corner to score on MSU goalie Ed Minney to start round two. But Taro Hirose tied it with an excellent shot from 10 feet out.
In round three, Connor Reilly of Minnesota lost the puck and failed to score, setting up an opportunity for the Spartans to win it with their next shooter. Coach Tom Anastos said he “played a hunch” and went with defenseman Zach Osburn. Osburn didn’t fake, deke or move side to side. He went in, took a look at fired the above goalie Eric Schierhorn’s left pass and below his catching glove.
“It’s the first time I’ve taken a shootout shot for Michigan State,’’ Osburn said. “I’ve been practicing a lot and was fortunate to get the change.
“I had a move in mind. I thought I’d have to shoot on Schierhorn because he’s pretty quick and good with his feet. I came in with lots of speed, and around the hash marks I kind of slowed down so I could push him back into the net, and then there was a lot of net to shoot at. I went below his glove and above his (left) pad.
“I was really happy and started sprinting back to our bench. I put some emotion out there and I think that’s good for our team.’’
Michigan State is now 1-2 in shootouts this season. The Spartans tied Michigan twice and lost the shootout in each game. Those ties felt like losses, so Saturday’s tie felt like a win, with an upbeat feeling heading into the postseason.
“We’ll take this game and watch a lot of video off it and look around and see what we can learn, where our success happens and take that into the Big Tens, and have a good game plan in mind,’’ Osburn said. “It was nice to get the (shootout) win on (Minnesota’s) Senior Night in the State of Hockey.’’
Why did Anastos select Osburn, a defenseman with four goals, for shootout duty? He wanted someone who’s a good shooter and not necessarily a stickhander because of ice conditions.
“The ice was snowy and not cleaned and I thought a deke wasn’t an easy thing to do. He’s got a good release so I said go in there and snap that off,’’ Anastos said. “He did a good job of showing some speed, getting up in the right position, and he got it off his stick in a hurry.
“When you win the shootout, you feel like you’ve won the game. We needed something to feel good about. After competing that hard without feeling good would not have been a positive.
“So, it’s good for Minney. He had a good night and our guys competed hard.’’
IN THE BIG TEN: Going into the last night of the regular season, four spots were already decided but the first-round playoff matches were not set. Minnesota was locked into first place, Wisconsin was set for second and Michigan and Michigan State were fifth and sixth, respectively.
The only question was the battle for third place between Ohio State and Penn State, with the Buckeyes up by one point. On Saturday, OSU shocked the Badgers, 4-1, to earn a road sweep, and the Wolverines stunned the Nittany Lions, 4-0, to sweep their series.
With Ohio State finishing third, it’ll play Michigan State at 4;30 p.m. on Thursday at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit in the opening quarterfinal of the Big Ten Tournament. The winner face No. 2 seed Wisconsin at 4:30 on Friday. Meanwhile, No. 4 seed Penn State and No. 5 Michigan meet for third straight game with a quarterfinal matchup at 8 p.m. on Thursday. The winner plays Minnesota on Friday at 8 p.m.
In Michigan’s 4-0 victory, senior goalie Zach Nagelvoort made 46 saves, including 22 in the second period, to earn a shutout in his final game at Yost Arena. Freshman center Adam Winborg had two goals and an assist for Michigan.
Ohio State scored a power-play goal, a shorthanded goal and an even-strength goal in building up a 3-0 lead at Wisconsin. Mason Jobst had a goal and an assist for the Buckeyes, who won the series opener 5-1. The Badgers, who got shut out 6-0 last Saturday at Penn State, have scored only two goals in their last three games.
AROUND THE NATION: There will be six deciding Game Three’s on Sunday in the five conferences already involved in the playoffs.
In the WCHA semifinals, Minnesota State and Michigan State will play a deciding Game 3 on Sunday in Houghton after Minnesota State stayed alive Saturday with a 1-0 victory. Michigan Tech won the opener 5-1.
Bowling Green upset No. 1 seed Bemidji State, 4-3 in overtime and 2-1. BGSU will play for the WCHA title next weekend in a one-game final at Minnesota State or Michigan Tech.
In the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC), Western Michigan and Omaha will play Game 3 of their series on Sunday in Kalamazoo. The Broncos stayed alive with a 5-2 win on Saturday after the Mavericks won the series opener, 2-1 in overtime.
There were sweeps in three other NCHC series. No. 1 seed Denver topped Colorado College, 4-1 and 4-0. The Pioneers have won 14 in a row over the Tigers. No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth eliminated Miami, 5-4 in overtime and 5-3, and North Dakota won two straight from St. Cloud State, 5-2 and 6-5 in overtime.
The NCHC Finals are next weekend in Minneapolis.
The Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) has two deciding games on Sunday – Clarkson at Cornell and Quinnipiac at St. Lawrence. Cornell won 2-1 Saturday to even their series after Clarkson pulled off a 6-2 upset on Friday. Quinnipiac forced a Game 3 with a 3-2 win Saturday. St Lawrence won the first game, 2-0.
There were two sweeps in the ECAC – Harvard eliminated Yale, 6-4, 6-2, and Union ousted Princeton, 4-1 and 4-3 in overtime.
The ECAC Finals are next weekend in Lake Placid, N.Y.
In Hockey East, New Hampshire is at UMass-Lowell, the No. 1 seed, on Sunday. UMass-Lowell bounced back from Friday’s 3-1 loss and won Game 2, 3-1.
Boston University swept Northeastern, 3-2 in overtime and 3-2; Boston College advanced with 7-0 and 7-4 wins over Vermont and Notre Dame topped Providence, 5-0, 5-2.
The Hockey East Finals are next weekend in Boston.
Atlantic Hockey has one Game 3 on Sunday. Mercyhurst is at Army, which won the first game 6-4 but Mercyhurst evened the series with a 3-2 overtime win on Saturday.
The other three series ended in sweeps. No. 1 seed Canisius defeated Niagara, 3-1, 2-1; No. 2 Air Force topped Bentley, 4-0, 2-1, and Robert Morris ousted Holy Cross, 6-3, 3-2.
The Atlantic Hockey Finals are next weekend in Rochester, N.Y.