Hockey can be a funny game sometimes. It's not like basketball, in which the better team wins nearly all of the time since the teams score throughout the game. This weekend, the team that played better hockey did not win. Minnesota outshot, out-chanced and generally out-hustled a good Michigan State team, but the scoreboard told a different story as the Spartans beat the Gophers Friday night before coming back to tie the game on Saturday.
Friday 11/25/11: 4-3 Gopher Loss
Minnesota's first full series against the Michigan State Spartans in more than 10 years opened with a fast paced first period. Michigan State took advantage of early flat play from the Gophers - something that has become all too common during the past three Friday nights. The Spartans jumped ahead to an early two goal lead behind goals from Kevin Walrod at 8:12 and Brent Darnell at 12:25. It seems like Minnesota has struggled to start playing with passion recently until they've been put into an early hole, but once Michigan State scored their second goal of the period the Gophers woke up. Minnesota dominated the remainder of the period (and the remainder of the game) as Seth Helgeson scored on a hard snapshot from the point at 16:47, with the assist going to Jake Hansen. Hansen made the play, controlling the puck in the corner before firing a pass to Helgeson in the high slot for a one-time shot. Nick Bjugstad tied the game with a goal less than a minute later at 17:34 of the period. Zach Budish and Mark Alt assisted on the play.
The shots on goal in the first period were 17-12 in favor of Minnesota, and the Gophers would add to their edge in shots in the second by putting 10 on Spartan goalie Drew Palmisano. However, Palmisano did not let any shots by him, and Gopher netminder Kent Patterson did not allow any of the five Michigan State shots into the net, so the teams exited the ice after two periods of play tied at 2-2.
The third period was another in what has become a string of "too little, too late" efforts for the Gophers. Kent Patterson has been the best goalkeeper in the country throughout Minnesota's first 14 games, but even great goalies let in soft goals at times, and Patterson allowed a couple soft goals early in the period (one shorthanded to Kevin Walrod at 3:08, the second to Matt Berry at 5:02 on an innocuous shot from the wing) and needed his team to bail him out in order for the Gophers to come out on top in the game. They almost did. Nick Bjugstad scored his second goal of the night and nation-leading 15th of the season at 13:02 of the third, and the Gophers continued to pepper Palmisano with scoring chance after scoring chance. With about a minute left Minnesota pulled the goalie for an extra attacker, and in what was perhaps the best scoring chance of the game Kyle Rau found the puck on his stick with tons of net to look at and about 25 seconds left on the clock. However, Palmisano reached out in desperation with his glove hand and swiped the puck out of the air before it crossed the goal line, preserving the Spartan lead and eventually winning the game for Michigan State. Minnesota battled back and nearly tied the game, but Michigan State ended up winning a game in which they were outplayed by the visiting Gophers. The shots for the third period were 16-6, for a grand total of 43-23 for the game in favor of Minnesota.
Saturday 11/26/11: 4-4 Tie
Minnesota started the first period on Saturday with much more jump than they had in the opening ten minutes on Friday. However, it would be Michigan State that again jumped out to an early lead. Brock Shelgren scored the only goal of the first period at 11:49, with the assists going to Mike Merrifield and Greg Wolfe, who was serving a mandatory one-game suspension Friday night following a fighting major the previous Saturday. Again, although the Gophers outshot the Spartans 12-9 in the first period, Michigan State held a one goal lead after the first.
Minnesota would tie the game early in the second period as Ben Marshall scored his second goal of the season. In what very well could have been a tripping penalty on the Gophers, the puck squirted out to the point where Marshall pinched in, stickhandled into a scoring area and fired a wrist shot past Spartan goalie Drew Palmisano. The unassisted goal at 4:39 tied the game at one goal each, but Michigan State would again take advantage of some Minnesota lapses to take a lead before the period expired. First, Mike Merrifield scored at 10:39 on assists from Greg Wolfe and Lee Reimer. Then, less than four minutes later at 14:27, Matt Crandell's shot from the point made its way through about five bodies before sneaking past Kent Patterson and into the Gopher net.
Minnesota would do something it did not do much of in the past several seasons though - respond and come back. The Gophers took advantage of a late power play opportunity when Erik Haula scored on a rebound from a near-impossible angle to cut the Spartan lead to 3-2. The assists on the Haula goal were from Nick Bjugstad and Nate Schmidt. The second period would end at that score, but the Gopher comeback was just getting started. The Gophers earned an early power play on a Tim Buttery tripping call at 2:26, and although the Spartans technically killed off the chance, Minnesota's Zach Budish scored just two seconds after the Gopher powerplay expired at 4:28. Budish's goal was set up by Taylor Matson and Justin Holl. Minnesota kept rolling, and Kyle Rau would put the Gophers ahead for the first time on the weekend at 7:01 of the period on a rebound chance off of a Zach Budish shot. Nick Bjugstad chipped in another assist on the goal, and with less than 13 minutes left in the game the Gophers had stormed all the way back and taken the lead.
It was short lived. Daultan Leveille scored on a partial breakaway at 8:54 of the period to tie the game at four goals each, and although Minnesota earned a late power play at 19:28 of the period they could not score in regulation play or overtime, so the game resulted in a 4-4 tie. The shots in the game ended at 39-31 in favor of the Gophers, but as mentioned on Friday the only number that matters is the one on the scoreboard, and the scoreboard was not friendly to Minnesota this weekend.
Next Weekend: Minnesota vs. Minnesota State
Next weekend, the Minnesota Gophers host the Minnesota State Mavericks in a series that pits the top team in the WCHA against the bottom team. The Mavericks are getting healthier and could get junior captain Tyler Elbrecht back this weekend. Elbrecht had broken multiple bones in his arm in the Mavericks' first game of the season, but the big defenseman could be back on the blueline for the purple cows this weekend. On the Gopher bench, coach Don Lucia mentioned that he was going to go back to the Gopher lineup from several weeks ago, sliding Travis Boyd back to the center on the fourth line and moving Seth Ambroz back to the Matson-Condon line. These combinations worked well several weeks ago and should be good again for the Maroon and Gold. Even though the Mavericks always play hard against the Gophers, on Minnesota's home ice I expect nothing less than a weekend sweep for Minnesota.