Neil's Notebook: Re-igniting A Future Rivalry With Minnesota
Nov. 24, 2011
By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer
The Michigan State-Minnesota hockey rivalry is about to change.
After playing only one game in each of the last 18 years of the College Hockey Showcase, the Spartans and Gophers are going to see each other a lot more often, eventually bringing back the relationship to where it was when both teams played in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (1959-1981) and even going back to 1950.
MSU and Minnesota will face each other twice over the next two seasons - at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Munn Arena and at Minnesota on Oct. 12-13 next year.
Starting with the 2013-2014 season, when both teams move from their respective leagues to the six-team Big Ten hockey conference, the Spartans and Gophers will play four times each season.
The only time the two schools played more than once since 1993 was during the 1996-97 season - one game in the Showcase and one in the NCAA Midwest Regional in Grand Rapids.
"The Showcase was a great way to keep the schools connected but it really wasn't a rivalry because it was once a year, and when you're not in the same conference, you don't get the same feel for their players,'' said Gophers coach Don Lucia, now in his 13th season at Minnesota.
"We're looking forward to the trip this year, and in two years that will be fun when get to play each other four times and then rivalry will be re-established. In the same conference, you really get to know each other.''
The Gophers hold a wide edge in the series - 101-42-12, mostly because the Gophers dominated in the 1950s when the Spartan program was developing under Coach Amo Bessone. Minnesota won the first 23 meetings and went 28-0-1 before MSU finally won in 1957.
Despite playing at MSU for four seasons and serving as an assistant coach for two years under Ron Mason, new Spartan coach Tom Anastos is new to the Spartans-Gophers rivalry. He never played Minnesota as a player or coached against them.
"I don't know much about the rivalry from their WCHA days but Minnesota has such a rich hockey tradition and it matters so much in their state and at their school,'' Anastos said. "I look forward to it. These are fun weekends, to play against these kinds of teams.
"It's just funny that in all the years that I've been involved in hockey, I've never run across them.''
However, Anastos, 48, has coached against Lucia, 53, during their early days in the coaching business.
When Anastos was at Michigan-Dearborn (1987-1990) and Lucia coached at Alaska Fairbanks (1987-1993), the teams played eight times, with Lucia's Nanooks holding a 5-2-1 edge. But UMD won the last two meetings, 3-2 and 7-2, in Fairbanks.
"When I talked to Don early this week, we laughed about those days and where we are now,'' Anastos said.
In the 18-year Showcase, which matched MSU and Michigan of the CCHA against Minnesota and Wisconsin of the WCHA every Thanksgiving weekend starting in 1993. The Gophers held a 9-4-5 edge over the Spartans.
Since MSU left the WCHA to join the CCHA, along with Michigan, Notre Dame and Michigan Tech, in 1981, the Spartans and Gophers have played five times in the NCAA Tournament, with Minnesota holding a 2-3 edge.
During a 12-season stretch from 1981 to 1993, the two teams played only four times, each team winning twice.
While Minnesota and MSU have played several exciting, entertaining games in the Showcase, the most memorable games in the history of the series came in the playoffs.
One of the greatest games in Spartan history - and most heartbreaking - came against the Gophers in the WCHA playoffs on March 14, 1976, at Munn Arena. After the teams started the two-games, totals- goals series with a 2-2 tie on March 13, the deciding game was a classic.
It went three overtimes and it was the Gophers who claimed a berth in the NCAA Finals with a 7-6 victory on Pat Phippen's goal at 6:33. The Spartans rallied from a 6-2 deficit midway through the second period to tie it with 3:34 left in the third period. The game was the last as Spartans for five heralded seniors - Tom Ross, Steve Colp, Daryl Rice, Brendon Moroney and John Sturges. Minnesota, coached by the legendary Herb Brooks, went on to the win the 1976 national championship.
The Spartans' biggest victories:
The last time MSU and Minnesota played a two-game series in the regular season was on Feb. 6-7, 1981, at Williams Arena in Minneapolis. The Gophers swept, 8-3, 4-2.
Michigan State last hosted the Gophers for a two-game series on Feb. 1-2, 1980. The Spartans won the opener 7-6 but lost the second game, 7-1.
ONE MORE TIME: The Spartans' nine seniors are 1-1-1 against Minnesota over the last three seasons and are eager to end their college careers with a winning record against the Gophers.
As freshmen, they went into Mariucci Arena and emerged with a 4-4 tie. A year later, the Spartans played the Gophers tough at Munn Arena, but a late goal gave the visitors a 2-1 victory.
Last season in Minneapolis, MSU stunned the Gophers, building a 3-0 lead in the first period and cruising to a 5-2 victory, ending a nine-game (0-4-5) winless streak against Minnesota.
Spartan senior defenseman Matt Crandell, who's from St. Cloud, Minn., said winning at Mariucci Arena was one of the best moments from a disappointing season.
"It was just a highlight to even play in that rink and to get the win just added to the satisfaction,'' Crandell said. "It's always fun to play Minnesota, having grown up there and knowing a lot of their players.
"I grew up and played with (sophomore defenseman) Nate Schmidt. I played with Seth Helgeson and Tom Serratore (in the USHL) in Sioux City (Iowa). There's always that extra-friendly competition.''
MSU (7-5 overall, 4-4 CCHA), ranked No. 20 in the USCHO poll, enters the nonconference series against the No. 2/3 Gophers (11-3, 8-2 WCHA) coming off a disappointing 2-1 loss at Northern Michigan, a defeat which ended a five-game winning streak.
"I love playing the better competition. It gives us a chance to improve as a team and prove ourselves within a group,'' Crandell said of facing the Gophers. "We'll be playing against four top lines and that gives you a chance to get better.''
Crandell is the only Spartan from Minnesota.
GOPHERS THRIVE: Like MSU, Minnesota has not qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the last three seasons. This season, the Gophers look like a different team and one that is on track to contend for the WCHA title and a return to the NCAAs.
The Gophers, still a fast-skating, skilled and offensive-minded team, won their first five games, and after a loss to Vermont, they added four more victories and earned the No. 1 ranking for two weeks in both major polls. Over the last two weekends, Minnesota split two WCHA series - at Wisconsin and a home-and-home set with St. Cloud. The Gophers are now No. 2 in one poll and No. 3 in another.
Senior goaltender Kent Patterson, who didn't take over as the No. 1 netminder until halfway through last season, already has six shutouts, a single-school record. He's played every minute of 14 games and has a 1.71 goals-against average.
Asked to list three reasons for his team's success, Coach Don Lucia said: "No. 1 is our goaltender, Kent Patterson. He's given us the opportunity to win every night. He's played very well and has been consistent.
"No. 2, is the improved play of our special teams. Our power play was decent last year and this year it's much better. And our penalty killing is so much better. We struggled last year because we had so many freshmen.
"No. 3 is the emergence of last year's freshmen as sophomores. We're playing four on defense and our top three centers are sophomores. We had to struggle a bit last year when those players were freshmen. But we got through it, and this season there's a big difference in their play.''
The Gophers play four seniors and one junior and the rest are underclassmen, including 10 sophomores.
Not that it matters. Minnesota is the highest-scoring team in the nation, averaging 4.36 goals a game. The Gophers are No. 3 defensively, giving up 1.71 goals a game. The power play is No. 3 nationally, clicking on 27.1 percent of their chances. Minnesota's penalty killing is 11th (87.9 percent), one spot below the No. 10 Spartans (88.2).
The Gophers' top four scorers are underclassmen - Sophomores Nick Bjugstad (13-8-21) and Erik Haula (7-13-20), freshman Kyle Rau (9-8-17) and sophomore defenseman Nate Schmidt (1-15-16).
"They're a very good team with lots of skill. They have 17 NHL draft picks and seem to be playing with lots of confidence,'' Anastos said. "They're playing very well at both ends of the rink and that will present challenges for us.
"But we'll continue to play our game. We'll create a strategy to give us the best chance to win but we don't want to change the focus on what we're doing as team just to try to stop the opponent.
"We'll try to be a good team with the way we want to play. That's a mindset that we want to continue to carry out.''