Sometimes getting a weekend off in college hockey is a good thing. Injury-riddled teams are able to take an extra week to heal, downtrodden teams are given time to regroup or, at the very least, teams are able to flat out rest.
But, in Michigan State’s eyes, last week’s bye may have come at an inconvenient time. The Spartans had a thrilling series two weeks ago, rallying on both nights from two-goal deficits to take four out of six Big Ten points from No. 6 Penn State.
“Personally, I think it's a little bit annoying,” senior forward Nico Müller said. “I like playing games. I love to play games, but I mean, it was good (to) get everyone healthy and stuff, so I didn't mind it, but I would have loved to play games.”
Had the idle week occurred during that week, perhaps the argument would’ve been the opposite. MSU entered the Penn State series riding a season-long, five-game losing streak with an offense that scored just six goals in those five games. The Spartans were swept the previous weekend at Ohio State, being outscored 9-1, and putting MSU at a crossroad of going down another dark path to start the second half of the season.
But instead, the Spartans responded with a 3-2 overtime win Friday night. And then Saturday night, senior forward Jagger Joshua scored his second hat trick of the season, leading to a tie and shootout win.
Suddenly, No. 15 Michigan State has some much-needed momentum ahead of this weekend’s series versus the mighty No. 2 Minnesota Gophers.
“I think it just depends on what's going on with your team,” MSU Head Coach Adam Nightingale said. “I think ideally – I thought we had a really good weekend against Penn State – we'd like to keep playing hockey, but the schedule is what it is. There will probably be other years that maybe you're banged up and you need a little time to heal up as a group, but you got to play the schedule that the way it's laid out.”
Scouting the opponent
Michigan State’s struggles against Minnesota (18-7-1) is no well-kept secret. Feb. 8, 2020 was the last time the Spartans defeated Minnesota, a losing streak that now sits at 11 games. The Gophers dominate the all-time series 50-131-16, and MSU is just 18-65-8 in Minneapolis.
Just last month, the Spartans were wiped 5-0 and 6-3 on their home ice in a series that didn't feature a single penalty.
“I think they're a really good team,” Nightingale said. “There's not a lot of easy offense against them. And some areas we talked about after there, I think it really showed we gotta get to the inside more. And when you're playing against a team that's got that good of a back end there, it's hard, right? They've got three guys who could probably play in the National Hockey League right now.”
Minnesota has 14 NHL Draft picks on its roster, six of which make up the defensive core. Four of the 14 are former players under Nightingale: freshman forwards Logan Cooley and Jimmy Snuggerud, freshman defenseman Ryan Chesley and senior defenseman Jackson LaCombe.
Cooley and Snuggered make up the Gophers’ top line with sophomore Matthew Knies, in what is one of, if not the, most dominant lines in the Big Ten. Knies is tied for eighth in the country with 15 goals, while also being tied for the nation’s lead with five game-winning goals. Cooley and Snuggerud meanwhile are both tied for ninth in the country in total points, with Cooley leading the Gophers with 19 assists.
Senior Justen Close mans the net for Minnesota, allowing just 2.14 goals per game on a .920 save percentage. He has four shutouts on the season, one against MSU. As a team, the Gophers are fourth in the country in goals scored per game (3.73) and eighth in the country in goals allowed per game (2.27).
To make the matchup even more difficult, Michigan State will have to adjust to the Olympic-sized rink at 3M Arena at Mariucci – an arena that should be extra raucous Saturday night for Hockey Day Minnesota, an annual state-wide celebration of hockey.
MSU said it has taken extra time to prepare for the larger sheet of ice, though only so much can be simulated on the NHL-sized rink at Munn Ice Arena.
“End of the day, it's that outside ice that you can either fall in love of offensively or maybe extend out there defensively,” Nightingale said. “The game’s played between the dots and dot's the same measurements on an NHL (sheet) as they are in an Olympic (sheet). I think too is the bigger deal you make out of it to your players, it can get in their head a little bit and the reality is, there's more ice out there, but both teams got to skate to get to that ice. We talked about a few things but we try not to make a big deal out of it.”
The Gophers are coming off just their seventh loss of the season, a 5-4 overtime loss at home to Michigan. No. 1 St. Cloud State is the only team to hold Minnesota under two goals in a game, a 3-0 shutout win in St. Cloud for the Huskies. Other Minnesota losses include Arizona State, Penn State, Ohio State, North Dakota and Minnesota State.
“We just gotta make sure that we play good, responsible hockey and just play our way there,” graduate student forward and team captain Miroslav Mucha said.
The puck drops at 8 p.m. Friday night and 5 p.m. Saturday. Both games will be televised on Bally Sports North, as well as streaming on Big Ten Plus.