Michigan State’s 6-3 loss and sweep at home by the visiting Minnesota Golden Gophers was a discouraging one. Both of Friday's and Saturday’s games were in the balance near the end of the second period, but both went the way in favor of the maroon and gold sweaters.
A five-minute span across the second and third period that led to a flurry of four goals for Minnesota completely turned Saturday’s game on edge, putting MSU at a two-goal deficit after leading 3-1 late in the second.
Even with two losses to one of the Big Ten’s most talented teams, Michigan State had a positive to take away, stemming from major shuffles to the lineup by Head Coach Danton Cole.
Particularly the new-look first line, consisting of freshman Jesse Tucker at center and flanked to the left by junior Erik Middendorf and to the right by sophomore Jeremy Davidson, came out on fire with an aggressive forecheck and clean tape-to-tape passes.
The top line struck early in the opening period on an aggressive play from Tucker. Middendorf chipped the puck into the zone and it rang behind the net. Minnesota graduate student goaltender Jack LaFontaine came out of his cage, but lost a 50-50 battle with Tucker, who flipped a no-look pass that could have been corralled by anybody. Middendorf was in the right place at the right time and slammed the puck into the empty net.
“I think it was just (Tucker) forecheck that was just unbelievable tonight,” Middendorf said. “I can think of three chances off the top of my head for us. Him just getting in by himself and creating havoc behind the net.”
Eight minutes later, a member of the MSU first line struck again, this time on the power play. An initial shot by sophomore defenseman Nash Nienhuis — who scored his first collegiate goal Friday night — was kicked aside by LaFontaine. The rebound was controlled by sophomore center Kristof Papp, who flipped it to his left for Davidson to finish the one-timer.
The goal from Michigan State’s leading goal scorer was his ninth on the season and pushed the Spartans to a 2-0 lead.
Midway through the second period a shot from the point from senior defenseman Cole Krygier ricocheted off the skate of Minnesota defenseman Brock Faber. The puck found the stick of a streaking Tucker adjacent to the net, who threw a backhander out front for Middendorf and tapped it into the wide open net.
“It felt really good,” Middendorf said. “I'd be lying if I said I wasn't frustrated during the week. When you go through eight games and don't score a goal as when you view yourself as a goal scorer, even though it's so hard to score in college hockey, it gets frustrating.”
Middendorf’s second goal of the game gave Michigan State a 3-1 lead with 10:38 to play in the middle period and MSU’s bid for an upset win over No. 9 Minnesota looked like a real possibility. Then the wheels fell off and the rest was history, including two goals scored by the Gophers against Middendorf, Tucker and Davidson.
However, it will not overshadow the promising offensive showing that could be a key for the remainder of the season. Michigan State was in need of offensive depth with one of its top weapons in fifth year forward Mitchell Lewandowski on the shelf, who sat out for a second consecutive game nursing an unspecified injury. And the linemates delivered, combining for three goals, two assists and nine of the MSU 24 shots on goal.
“They worked and they made some plays obviously,” Cole said.
As the season progresses, the new MSU top line may be held in tact, even with the eventual return of Lewandowski. Middendorf, Tucker, and Davidson had never played — let alone practiced — on the same line together, so perhaps the sky truly is the limit for this grab bag trio.
“I think we were, my line especially, was super excited to play together,” Middendorf said. “It was a nice mixup and fresh guys, fresh faces.”
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