Michigan State hockey (8-12-3, 4-7-2 Big Ten) defeated Minnesota (9-9-4, 6-4-3 Big Ten) 5-3 at Munn Ice Arena Saturday night.
The effort was highlighted by the Spartans capitalizing three of their four power play opportunities.
Junior goaltender John Lethemon earned the start in net, making 36 saves.
Junior forward Taro Hirose assisted on three goals. Sophomore forward Mitchell Lewandowski found the back of the net twice for the Spartans.
“When they're moving the puck light that five-on-five, they're tough,” coach Danton Cole said of his group postgame. “They're feeling it, and that's good. I always say the Big Ten's like all playoff games. That's just what it feels like. Now we've got to come back and do it again tomorrow.”
As expected against the staunch Minnesota defense, the Spartans’ opportunities were limited early. Lewandowski created one of MSU’s only scoring chances through the first 10 minutes of play, as his shot from behind the goal line bounced out to junior center Patrick Khodorenko, who was saved by Mat Robson.
Minnesota would go on to convert less than a minute after MSU threatened to score.
Nathan Burke was able to gather the puck behind the net after icing was waved off and found Sammy Walker in the slot. Walker’s shot whistled past the glove of Lethemon to give Minnesota the early 1-0 advantage.
Just over five minutes into play would come MSU’s first penalty kill of the contest. The Spartans’ success on the penalty kill would be the first of two in the opening period.
But even with the game back at even strength, it seemed as if the Golden Gophers were still playing with a man advantage, as the Spartans’ first line was the only unit able to apply pressure.
“It probably surprised us that we had the box so much early and I thought we were a little average with it coming through the neutral zone,” Cole said. “But I think after the first couple of shifts for everyone, the guys really played well. There's a turnover here or turnover there, but that's the game of hockey.”
The prolific line would eventually break through on a power play of its own.
Junior forward Taro Hirose would remind Minnesota of his exceptional vision, firing a pass to an aggressive-minded Lewandowski. The sophomore sent a one-timer past the helpless Robson to tie the score at 1.
“When the power play’s going you get that mojo and that feeling that you're going to go out there and you're at least going to get chances," Lewandowski said. "Scoring three obviously puts you at a big advantage, especially when our penalty kill did what they did tonight. They let up one, but in seven tries. But they got a good power play too. Our special teams was better tonight, so that was a key moment in the game.”
MSU would capitalize on another man advantage in the closing minutes of the first. Freshman defenseman Dennis Cesana’s shot from the point was deflected by Khodorenko to give MSU a 2-1 lead heading into the second; Hirose earned the secondary assist.
As puck possession became more neutral in the second, both squads’ scoring chances were limited. Minnesota’s best opportunity to draw even came on Matt Denman’s shot from the point. The shot snuck past Lethemon, but the goal was reviewed and called off for goaltender interference.
Hirose would flash his vision once more – this time with five minutes remaining in the period – connecting with Lewandowski again in a similar fashion to extend the lead to 3-1.
“I think that high tip and stuff like that are things we've been working on lately and for the rest of the season it just wasn't clicking for us," Hirose said. "Tonight, he was in great spot, and they were just going in like that.”
The Spartans would survive Minnesota’s relentless power play effort as the second period came to a close. Outshooting Minnesota 13-11, the Spartans would retain a 3-1 lead heading into the final period.
The Spartans would convert on the power play yet again in a third period that featured six total penalties. Senior forward Cody Milan was able to stretch the lead to 4-1 amidst traffic in front of Robson.
Minnesota wouldn’t go down quietly, however. Brannon McManus would pull the Gophers within two with just over seven minutes remaining. Rem Pitlick would truly give MSU a scare as his shot got past Lethemon just as the net came undone. Upon review, the goal was confirmed, making the score 4-3 with under five minutes remaining.
Junior defenseman Jerad Rosburg would seal the victory for MSU with 11 seconds remaining, scoring an empty-netter from his own zone.
The Spartans will face off against Minnesota for the second time this weekend at 5 p.m. Sunday at Munn Ice Arena.