In the week leading up to No. 13 Michigan State hockey’s series with No. 4 Minnesota, East Lansing was buzzing. The recorded attendance for Friday’s game was 6,555. Munn Ice Arena has an official capacity of 6,114.
But by the time the final buzzer sounded and the clock hit 0:00 on Saturday night, reality set in for the Spartans. With 5-0 and 6-3 victories, the Golden Gophers handed MSU its first back-to-back losses of the season, reminding the team there is still much room for improvement.
Minnesota’s performance over the weekend proved why it's not only the top team in the Big Ten, but why it’s earned a top five ranking next to its name.
MSU had a few stretches of offensive momentum during the first two periods on Friday, trailing by two with 20 minutes to go. Right as they were showing signs of strength, just about everything that could’ve gone wrong for the Spartans did in the third period.
Turnovers and careless passing from the home team put the Gophers at an advantage, and the visitors put up three goals in the final ten minutes of play. Minnesota goaltender Justen Close was ultimately unphased by MSU’s 25 shots and remained perfect on the night, earning his second shutout of the season.
Although the Spartans were unable to find the back of the net all night, captain and graduate forward Miroslav Mucha said the team was prepared to put the loss behind itself and start fresh in game two.
“I think (Minnesota is) a very talented team and I think we turned a lot of pucks over that fed right to their game,” Mucha said Friday. “The good thing is, that was nowhere near our best performance out there. We know what we’re capable of and we got to stick to our game ... and get the win tomorrow.”
Head Coach Adam Nightingale said he saw “some really good stretches” from his team during the game despite the final result.
“Part of the growth of our group is, one, you got to come to the rink and believe you can win, and then two, we got to keep learning and growing and no different than any other game,” Nightingale said Friday. “We found some things that we liked and some that we didn't. We'll be better tomorrow.”
MSU was unable to pull off a series split, but finally got on the board Saturday night, avoiding the weekend shutout, thanks to scoring efforts from sophomore forward Jesse Tucker and junior forward Jeremy Davidson.
“I know we can play with those top end teams, and I felt the third period really showed,” Davidson said Saturday. “We won the third period three to two, so I think … It gives us a little bit of hope. I mean, we can learn from stuff like that, and I think our starts just need to be a little bit better.”
Tucker said the difference between MSU’s performance on Saturday was the team capitalized on more opportunities and “got back to its game.”
“It was things like getting pucks deep, getting on the body and just playing to our system, not making soft turnovers and things like that,” Tucker said Saturday. “So we just really stuck to our game plan and obviously it showed.”
With a first-year head coach and 12 new faces on the roster – half being freshmen – this series reminded the Spartans and their fans that rebuilding a program doesn’t happen overnight.
“It's not always a straight path up and there's some steps back,” Nightingale said Saturday. “(We) played a really good team, you find some things out you got to get better at and we'll start to work on that on Monday.”
The Spartans have an opportunity for redemption as they return to Munn next Friday for the first game of their home-and-home series against No. 5 Michigan. The puck drops at 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
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