These next few months are going to be critical for No. 20 Michigan State (10-9-1), as they will get the second half of the season underway this weekend against Minnesota (7-9-4) in a two-game weekend series at Munn Ice Arena. The Spartans will open up the New Year with a six-game slate in January, four of them coming on home ice.
The green and white have struggled to find much success against the Golden Gophers, going an abysmal 48-118-16 against them all-time. However, MSU won three of the four contests last season, including a sweep on home ice.
“Always a good series,” coach Danton Cole said. “We get back into the Big Ten (games) now, and they’re all going to be like playoff games. We’re right on the edge of qualifying for the NCAA tournament, I think our guys are aware of that. We don’t spend a lot of time talking about it, but they know the implications of every game and we have to take care of some business moving forward.”
Minnesota had a bit of a rough start to their season but is coming off winning a championship in their holiday tournament. The Mariucci Classic, which is hosted by the Gophers, was brought back for the first time in two years and saw Minnesota take down St. Cloud State 4-1 in the title game. Before the break, Minnesota played No. 8 Ohio State tough on the road, taking them to overtime in both games, coming out on top in the second one.
The Gophers have a very young team this year, with 19 of their 27 rostered players listed as underclassmen. Sophomore forward Sammy Walker has been leading the way with 13 points, while freshman Ben Meyers leads in assists (9). Junior Scott Reedy has helped paced the offense, leading the team with nine goals.
The Spartans come off a 1-1 weekend at the Great Lakes Invitational (GLI) in Detroit on Dec. 30 and 31. In the opener, MSU dropped a 4-2 decision to Michigan Tech before rebounding to defeat Ferris State 5-2 and capture third place.
MSU will have their work cut out for them on the man-advantage this weekend, as Minnesota has a .862 penalty kill percentage this season, tops in the Big Ten and twelfth nationally. The Spartans haven’t been too shabby when shorthanded themselves, as their penalty kill percentage sits at .810, good for 31st in the country.
Senior forward Patrick Khodorenko will enter the weekend just two goals shy of 50 for his career, something that hasn’t been done by a Spartan since Tim Crowder back in 2009. Cole obviously appreciates Khodorenko’s impact on the ice, but has also valued seeing his evolution in becoming more of a leader off of it as well.
Khodorenko has been one of the better players on the team in each of his years at Michigan State. According to Cole, he didn’t receive many votes for captain his sophomore and junior years. This year, however, Khodorenko was named an assistant captain, showing his growth as a respected leader on the team.
“He’s been great,” Cole said. “What I really like about him is that he’s gotten better and better every year, in a lot of different aspects. His hockey has continued to improve, but one thing we were talking about earlier today was just how much better he’s gotten as a leader. ... He’s being more vocal, and I think that’s going to lead him to have a better and better pro career.”
The goaltenders have been solid throughout most of the Big Ten this season, and two of the better ones will be on display this weekend. It’s been well documented how big of a year MSU senior John Lethemon is having. He will carry a 10-7-1 record along with a .938 save percentage and 2.07 GAA into the weekend. His counterpart across the ice will be Minnesota junior Jack LaFontaine, who has started 12 games for the Golden Gophers, putting up a 2.85 GAA and a .908 save percentage.
The first game of the weekend series will start at 6 p.m. on Friday, followed by a Saturday night game at 7 p.m.
“I like the mentality,” Cole said. “It’s going to be a fun run here. They’re not going to cheat us, they’re not going to cheat the fans. I think they know there’s something to play for, but they’re comfortable with that. ... I think they felt like they left something on the table at the (Great Lakes Invitational), but now we’ve got seven weekends of Big Ten hockey to make sure we don’t leave anything on the table.”