The Minnesota Golden Gophers hockey team will open up the 2020 portion of their schedule this weekend in East Lansing with a series against the Michigan State Spartans. The Spartans are the only Big Ten foe Minnesota has yet to play this season. It will not be an easy task as the Spartans have surprised this season and currently sit tied for second place in the Big Ten.
Minnesota will begin the second portion of their schedule well rested. Two weeks ago the Gophers ended their holiday break by winning the Mariucci Classic, defeating Bemidji State and St. Cloud State to take home the title. They then had last weekend off before returning to Big Ten play this weekend.
The key to this weekend’s series may be the goaltneding for each squad. Jack LaFontaine appears to have won the starting job at the moment for the Gophers. He has started each of the last four games for Minnesota and backstopped them to their win of the Mariucci Classic giving up just three goals of 55 shots on the weekend. That was good enough to earn him the Big Ten’s #2 Star of the Week for his efforts. He will need to be good against a couple of lethal scores for the Spartans. Patrick Khodorenko leads the Spartans in goals with ten and in points with 20. His 10 goals are good enough for second in the Big Ten. Mitchell Lewandowski ranks second on the team with 15 points and has been a Gopher kille the last few seasons on the KHL line with Khodorenko. Taro Hirose, the third member of that line left after his junior season and is currently playing with the Detroit Red Wings.
On the opposite end of the ice, Minnesota will need to try and see if they can crack John Lethemon in net. The senior is having by far his best season for the Spartans this year and leads the Big Ten in save percentage at .938 and is third in the league in goals against average at 2.06. He has four shutouts on the season to lead the conference—second most in the nation. Minnesota will try and see if they can find some scoring from a balanced attack. Minnesota gets forward Sampo Ranta back this weekend after missing him during the Mariucci Classic as he was playing on the Finnish World Junior Team. With Ranta gone, Scott Reedy stepped up in a big way with three goals in the Classic to now take over the team lead with nine on the season. several members on the Gophers have had scoring success in the past against the Spartans with Sammy Walker and Brannon McManus leading the way each with five career points against Michigan State. Ben Brinkman and Blake McLaughlin each have four points in four career games against MSU.
Minnesota and Michigan State will play for the Mariucci-Bessone Trophy. given to the team that has the best regular season record against one another. The trophy currently resides in East Lansing after the Spartans took the season series from Minnesota 3-1 last year. Special teams will once again be key for Minnesota’s chances. They have been good on the penalty kill this season leading the Big Ten with an 86.2% kill rate. They should hope to continue that success this weekend against a paltry power play for the Spartans at only 19%. Minnesota is even worse at 18.5%.
The two teams are fairly evenly matched on offense, but with Lethemon the Spartans are about a half a goal per game stingier on defense. If Minnesota wants to win this weekend they will need to find a way to puck the puck in the net at least three times per game. Otherwise, it could be a Spartan sweep.
A spartan sweep would just about end any minute hopes of the Gophers making the NCAA Tournament with an at-large bid. The Gophers have 14 regular season games remaining on the season and sit at #31 in the pairwise. The changes are already very steep—so much so that the Gophers would probably need to go 11-3 at the very worst and maybe even 12-2 to have a chance at a bubble spot.
Minnesota similarly is not in a great position when it comes to the conference race. The Gophers are in 5th place, five points behind 4th place Notre Dame. If the Gophers want to make up that gap and try and work their way into a potential home ice spot for the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, they have some work to do over the next few weeks to make up some ground. That needs to include at minimum a split this weekend.
HOW TO WATCH:
Minnesota Golden Gophers @ #20 Michigan State Spartans
Where: Munn Ice Arena, East Lansing Michigan
When: 5PM Friday, 6 PM Saturday
TV: Big Ten Network
Stream: Fox Sports App
Radio: 1130 AM/ 103.5 FM/ I Heart Radio App