Michigan State hockey (2-1-1) will return home Thursday and Friday to take on the Big Ten Preseason Favorite, No. 5 Minnesota, (4-0-0) at Munn Ice Arena.
Through four games, Minnesota has done nothing but live up to the preseason excitement. In their two wins versus Penn State and two wins versus Ohio State, they were dominant. The Gophers outscored the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes 13-4 propelling them to the top of the PairWise rankings.
This will be the Golden Gophers first road series of the year after their first four games in Minneapolis. Minnesota is coming off more than a week's rest, having played their last game on Nov. 24, while Michigan State has a much shorter turnaround playing their last game Sunday night.
Senior Jack LaFontaine started in net all four games for the Gophers. The 2016 third round pick by the Carolina Hurricanes carries a 1.00 GAA and a .961 save percentage thus far this season.
The Golden Gophers play a very fast style of hockey under Head Coach Bob Motzko, which typically plays in their favor for home games on the large rink at 3M Arena at Mariucci. Playing at Munn should help the Spartans contain the Minnesota forwards and defensemen who play aggressively in the offensive zone.
Minnesota’s offense is led by junior Sammy Walker, a 2020-21 Preseason All-Big Ten First Team selection. Walker registered 11 goals and 19 assists last season and has already scored two goals this season. Brannon McManus is another offensive star for the Gophers. The senior forward has 31 career goals and 36 assists. However, McManus suffered a leg injury in Minnesota’s last game and will not play against MSU on Thursday and Friday.
Despite the success in 2020 by Minnesota, MSU has had recent success against them. In 2019, the teams split the series, with both going 1-1 at home and the year before that Michigan State went 3-1 against Minnesota.
Junior Drew DeRidder will likely be in net for the Spartans both nights. DeRidder is coming off his first game of the season where he was good (3 goals allowed and 27 saves), but not extremely dominant like he was in the first three games.
One area that might end up determining the outcome of the series is the faceoff circle. It has been an area of success for the Spartans, who have won 61.8% of the draws so far, which ranks first in the country. Tommy Apap leads the way for MSU with a win percentage of .658 followed by Josh Nodler at .588.
While their individual efforts are important, Cole believes some of the other positions on the ice deserve some credit too.
“Our centers have done a very good job," Cole said. "But, I think the other four guys on the ice have had a real good line-of-scrimmage mentality and really jumped on the drop of the puck. So, it really is five guys winning draws."
Minnesota, on the other hand, has its success in the circle too. In fact, they are second in the country in faceoffs just behind MSU with a .615 percentage.
Point being, Minnesota is a great team. The Spartans will have to bring their best on Thursday and Friday in order to steal a win or perhaps two.
Both games will be broadcasted on Fox Sports Detroit at 8 p.m.
Editor's note: This article was updated to correct a detail about the Minnesota lineup.
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