Sunday, February 25, 2024

Preview: Michigan State hockey looks to capitalize on No. 8 Minnesota's weakened roster

February 5, 2022
<p>MSU faces off against the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers at Munn Ice Arena on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022. </p>

MSU faces off against the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers at Munn Ice Arena on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022.

Photo by Chloe Trofatter | The State News

2022 has not been kind to Michigan State.

After an 11-8-1 start to the season, the Spartans have tumbled precipitously down the standings with seven straight losses. Michigan State now finds itself in the basement of the Big Ten.

This weekend, the schedule does not get any easier. MSU is on the road for a two-game series with the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

In Friday night's series opener, MSU came out of the first period with a 2-0 lead, but again, inconsistency struck. To salvage the weekend, Michigan State needs to put together a full 60-minute performance.

The Gophers are a familiar opponent for the Spartans. At the beginning of January, the teams clashed for a two-game series in East Lansing. Minnesota dominated Michigan State in game one with a 4-1 victory and finished the sweep with a 6-3 win. Last night, the Gophers opened this weekend's series with a 4-2 comeback victory.

With top-end speed and depth throughout the lineup, Minnesota just looked a tier above Michigan State. However, the Gophers are still missing a few key pieces.

First, there's the departure of starting goaltender Jack LaFontaine. LaFontaine signed his entry-level contract with the Carolina Hurricanes, effectively ending his collegiate career. Junior goaltender Justen Close has taken the starting position in LaFontaine's absence.

Close has done a solid job as Minnesota's new starter. While he's just .500 through six starts, Close has a higher save percentage than LaFontaine (.907 compared to .900) and a lower average goals against (2.14 compared to 2.69). LaFontaine's departure certainly hurt Minnesota, but the Spartans cannot underestimate the Gophers new starter.

The biggest missing pieces for Minnesota will be the players that left for the 2022 Olympics. The Gophers two leading point-scorers, junior forward Ben Meyers (26 points) and freshman forward Matthew Knies (25 points) will leave glaring holes on the offense, while sophomore defenseman Brock Faber's absence is sure to be felt on defense. The trio is joining Team USA in Beijing, absent until at least the end of February.

Even with a few key pieces gone from the lineup, Minnesota remains one of the stronger teams in the Big Ten.

"They're still a good team and they have really good depth — still a dangerous team," senior defenseman Dennis Cesana said.

A few upperclassmen forwards will have to take on the offensive responsibilities of Minnesota's newly-altered roster. Senior forward Blake McLaughlin is the leading point-scorer with Knies and Meyers gone (25 points) and junior forward Bryce Brodzinski is tied for the team lead in goals (11). The duo will have to take on a leadership role on and off the ice. And do not count out freshman forward Chaz Lucius, who has eight goals and eight assists on the season.

Defensively, Jackson LaCombe will log big minutes. The junior defenseman leads the team's defensemen in points (15) and assists (14). If Minnesota wants to keep any Big Ten title hopes alive, these four players will have to play some of the best hockey of their careers — and it starts against MSU.

For Michigan State, the key to the series is consistency. The Spartans have had solid stretches of play even in the losing streak, but those moments have been outshined by the bad. In the 6-3 loss to Minnesota almost a month ago, the Spartans held a 3-1 lead late in the second period. A couple of own-goals and a disastrous third period doomed Michigan State, who came away with nothing after playing nearly two full periods of great hockey.

Coming off of a bye-week, the Spartans will be well-rested and quick to forget the current six game losing streak.

"It makes no sense to dwell on the past, " Cesana said. "We've just gotta come out with a good effort and play a full 120 minutes in two games this weekend."

In Michigan State's final game before the bye, Ohio State skated away with a 3-2 victory. Although the result was the same for the Spartans, the game was a different story. MSU outshot OSU 42-30, won the special teams matchup (scored a power play goal and stopped all three of the Buckeyes power play attempts) and were the more physical team through 60 minutes. Ohio State came away with the win, but that's hockey.

In the loss, Michigan State might finally have found something to build upon in such a brutal stretch. The Spartans will have to bring that kind of energy against the No. 8 Gophers this weekend if they are looking for to play spoiler in the Big Ten race.

The puck drop for game two of the series is set for 6 tonight. The game will be televised via BTN+.

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