Its been a bit of an up and down season this far for the Gopher Hockey Team, but they can take a momentum boost into the holiday break with a good performance this weekend in East Lansing against Michigan State. The Gophers will try and sweep the Spartans at Munn Arena for the first time since 1978. Michigan State is the last of the current Big Ten Hockey schools that Minnesota has not swept on the road.
The Gophers split their Big Ten opening series at Mariucci Arena against Ohio State last weekend. The Gophers took Friday nights game 5-3 before losing in semi-embarrassing fashion 8-3 on Saturday. Minnesota did get a big weekend from sophomore Tyler Sheehy. He recorded four goals and five shots en route to being named the Big Ten’s Second Star of the Week. He leads the Gophers in points with 20, and goals with 9 this season.
However, the Gophers will be missing some players this weekend due to the series against the Buckeyes. Junior Mike Szmatula has an upper body injury and will miss the series against the Spartans. Gopher coach Don Lucia said that he hopes to have Szmatula back for the Mariucci Classic at the end of December. Also, the Gophers will be without the services of freshman defenseman Ryan Lindgren for Friday night’s game. Lindgren was issued an elbowing major penalty with just three seconds left in the Gophers loss to Ohio State last Saturday, and the Big Ten after reviewing the play suspended him one game earlier in the week. Its a decent loss for Minnesota who has gotten some great play out of Lindgren. He will also miss the Mariucci Classic after being named to the US Junior National Team that will play at the Wold Juniors Championship in Canada in late December and early January.
Michigan State comes into the series against the Gophers well rested after an exhibition win over the US Under-18 Team last weekend. The Spartans struggled to start the year, but over Thanksgiving weekend went into Grand Forks and got a win and a tie against North Dakota. The Gophers will be happy not to see former Spartans goalie Jake Hildebrandt anymore. He graduated after last season after tormenting his Big Ten opponents. The current Spartans have been led in net by junior Ed Minney. Minney has started seven of the Spartan’s ten games this season and has a 4-3-1 record. But with a 2.98 goals against average and just a 89.2 saves percentage, he can be beaten. The Spartans leading scorer is Mason Appleton who has 11 points on the season. Hois five goals also lead the team. Senior Villiam Haag is also still in East Lansing, and is second on the team in scoring.
Minnesota will look to try and put together a total weekend effort since their series against North Dakota. The Gophers have not been able to put together two good games in a row, and a lot of that comes down to the play of goalie Eric Schierhorn. Schirhorn before last weekend had seemed to struggle on Friday nights and play well in the second game on Saturday. However the opposite occured in the series against the Buckeyes. Schierhorn was sharp in the Gophers 5-3 win on Friday, and looked lost on Saturday getting pulled in the third period of an 8-3 Gopher loss. Unfortunately for Minnesota, the Gophers are without a quality backup option. Nick Lehr has come into games in relief of Schierhorn a few times this season, but has not looked sharp as well. He gave up two goals on eight shots in the third period against the Buckeyes last Saturday as well. However, it appears next season hope may be on the horizion.
The Gophers did appear to get some competition for Schierhorn for next season and beyond with the commitment of Canadian goalie Mat Robson last week. Robson who is expected to come in next season has had an interesting route to, from, and back to college hockey as Nate Wells of SB Nation College Hockey explains in a great article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. He is leading the BCHL with Penticton in wins and save percentage. One can only hope it will translate over to the college game.
As for this weekend, the Gophers can hope that Schierhorn can put together two good games, the Gophers can overcome the loss of Szmatula on the power play, and that they don’t miss Lindgren too much on the blue line. They will need to get quality play out of the players they have come to expect it from, most notably senior captain Justin Kloos, and junior Leon Bristedt. Both games this weekend will air on BTN, so it will give Gopher fans a chance to see what this team can do against a middling opponent on the road. If Minnesota really wants to be seen as the cream of the Big Ten crop, then four points are an absolute, and six points would be really useful in seeing themselves on the top of the heap come March.
#11 Minnesota Golden Gophers @ Michigan State Spartans
Where: Munn Arena, East Lansing, Michigan
When: Friday 5:33 CT, Saturday 7:03 CT
Stream: BTN 2 GO
Radio: 1500 ESPN