Thursday was an ugly loss where MSU seemed completely flustered, while Friday looked like it could have been a bounce-back performance, before it ended in a loss. Minnesota, ranked No. 5 in the country, proved their status in East Lansing.
After dropping Minnesota series, MSU hockey is still dominating faceoffs in 2020
The Spartans now find themselves on a three-game skid after starting the season 2-0-1. One thing has remained the same though: faceoffs. Through six games, MSU has won the faceoff battle six times.
Going into the two recent losses to Minnesota, Michigan State ranked first in the country in faceoff percentage, winning 61.8% of draws. The problem though was Minnesota was right on their tail, in second place in the country winning 61.5%, setting up a thrilling test of who the better faceoff team truly was.
Spoiler: Michigan State won the faceoff draws decidedly 73 to 50 across both games.
The importance of faceoffs is huge, and it was crucial against the Gophers. Minnesota proved to be a team that loved to have control of the puck, winning the time of possession battle. When they win draws or force turnovers, they are smart with the puck and limit their turnovers. So, the first step to preventing Minnesota from doing that was by winning faceoffs, and that is what the Spartans did Thursday and Friday.
“I think it’s a big part of the game," MSU Head Coach Danton Cole said. "I’ve always taken a lot of pride in it. I think it’s a team stat, and all five guys jump in and win a lot of draws and our wings won a lot of draws for us tonight."
Coming into the Minnesota series, MSU used their success in the circle specifically to help them on the penalty kill. They win the draw, clear the puck and kill some time. Simple as that.
In Thursday’s game though, this game plan struggled. Minnesota scored two goals on their first two power plays of the game as they were able to hold the puck patiently and find high quality scoring chances. The game had quickly fallen out of MSU's hands despite the 3-1 score. However, Michigan State won four more faceoffs than Minnesota.
Of course in Friday’s game, one crucial faceoff loss on the penalty kill by Michigan State led to a quick Minnesota goal four seconds into the power play, which ended up serving as the game-winning goal.
Sophomore Josh Nodler, freshman Kristof Papp and senior Tommy Apap have been a key to this success. Entering the series, Apap (.588) and Nodler (.648) led the team while Papp put up a solid effort too.
In the second Minnesota game, Papp was a healthy scratch, putting a question to how the Spartans would do in the faceoff circle. Sophomore Nicolas Müller took his spot at center, and MSU dominated in the circle winning 42 draws to Minnesota’s 23.
“Nicolas Müller jumped in and had a fantastic game at center," Cole said. "That line he was playing against gave us fits last night (Thursday), and we didn’t have a good matchup. He did a h--- of a job tonight in the middle,” Cole said.
Müller won six of his 11 draws while Nodler and Apap were a combined 27 for 40.
“I’ve never seen Nico (Nicolas Müller) play better than I had tonight," forward Mitchell Lewandowski said. "I thought he was awesome. Every time I had the puck it seemed like he was open."
Although it is more of a moral victory, it is an encouraging statistic. The outcome of Thursday and Friday’s games could have been much worse had MSU not been consistently winning draws. If the Spartans are able to continue winning draws and avoid slow starts like they did in both games against the Gophers, MSU has the ability to compete with some of the best teams in the country.
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