The Minnesota Gophers men’s hockey team will look to open their 2022 portion of the schedule successfully when they head to East Lansing for a two game series against the Michigan State Spartans. It will be the first two matchups between the two schools this season and will get Minnesota to the exact halfway point of the conference season having played two games against every other Big Ten opponent. With potential roster upheaval upcoming due to the Olympics, the Gophers need to take advantage of every game they have with a full complement of players and try to do as they did to the Spartans a season ago when Minnesota finished the season 5-0 over the Green and White.
Minnesota entered 2022 playing a pair of exhibition games earlier this week. Minnesota defeated St. Thomas 5-2 at Doug Woog Arena in South St. Paul Sunday afternoon before defeating the US Under 18 Team 5-3 at 3M Arena on Monday night. Justin Close played both games in net for the Gophers giving Jack LaFontaine one more weekend off to rest before most likely playing the final 8 weeks of the regular season and any postseason games without a breather. The Gophers got to test out some of their depth as several star players at out one or both games, and that depth will be tested in games that count in a few weeks.
On Thursday an initial list of college players who have been asked to play for the US Olympic team was published in the Athletic and it included three Gophers in defenseman Brock Faber and forwards Ben Meyers and Mathew Knies. Meyers and Knies are one and two in scoring for Minnesota this season and Faber is one of the best defensemen in the Big Ten. While not officially added to the roster as of yet, Bob Motzko stressed he told his players if given the chance to go and play for the US team and not to worry about the Gophers. It sounds like the players will miss the first three series in February at a minimum—which for Minnesota is a home series against Michigan State and road series at Ohio State and Penn State. The hope is the players would return for the regular season finale at home against Wisconsin, but only time will tell.
Thus the Gophers have three more Big Ten series and a non-conference series with what is hopefully a full roster. Heading into he weekend they sit in second place in the Big Ten with 19 points, four back of leader Michigan, but with two games in hand. With the Wolverines playing a non-conference series against UMass this weekend Minnesota could be atop the league standings by Saturday night depending on how they fare against the Spartans. These are the type of games Minnesota needs to find a way to win.
Michigan State has been better than many had thought this season. They enter the weekend with a 11-8-1 overall record and a 5-5 conference record. Their 15 points place them in 5th place in the Big Ten at the moment, but just one back of Notre Dame for fourth. The Spartans were swept by Michigan, swept Wisconsin and have split with every other Big Ten team thus far, so Minnesota will need to know this weekend at Munn Ice Arena will not be a breeze. They are coming off of a pair of games against in-state rivals at home losing to Western Michigan 3-1 before defeating Michigan Tech 3-2 in overtime. A familiar name awaits in net for Sparty as Drew DeRidder is still stopping pucks for the Spartans. The Gophers have had success against him as in the six games he has started for Michigan State against Minnesota the Gophers have scored 4.11 goals per game and allowed him to record a save percent age of just .878. But DeRidder has been great this season and heading in the weekend has a GAA of 1.99 and a save percentage of .946. The other Spartan goalie Pierce Charleson has much better numbers against the Gophers with a 1.61 GAA, .958 save percentage in just two games. Minnesota will probably see both in net this weekend.
Another familiar name awaits on offense....probably. Fifth year senior Mitchell Lewandowski has been around forever. He has played 17 games in his career against the Gophers and has 14 points and 8 goals in them. However, according The Only Colors, Lewandowski was injured in the game against Michigan Tech and his status for the weekend is unknown. Without him and his team leading 18 points the Spartan offense is a lot more pedestrian. Jeremy Davidson leads the Spartans with 8 goals on the season and is second on the team with 13 points. Michigan State only averages 2.4 goals per game as a team, so if Minnesota can jump to an early lead they should be able to control the rest of the game.
The two teams special teams stats are relatively even, Minnesota has a 26% success rate on the power play compared to MSU’s 22.2%. On the penalty kill it’s even closer. MSU kills off 84,4% of their penalties while the Gophers have a 82.4% success rate. This game will most likely be won 5x5, which should bode well for the Gophers.
With just a pair of Big Ten games before a make-up non-conference series against Alaska next weekend, Minnesota really needs to take advantage and defeat a Michigan State team that on paper, and in reality a season ago they are much better than. Can the Gophers break their five week split streak—in games that count that is— we can only hope.
HOW TO WATCH:
#9/11 Minnesota Gophers @ Michigan State Spartans
Where: Munn Ice Arena, East Lansing, Michigan
When: 5:30 PM Friday/ 6:30 PM Saturday
TV: Big Ten Network
Stream: Fox Sports App
Radio: 1130 AM/103.5 FM/ I Heart Radio