MINNEAPOLIS – Judging by the numbers on the scoreboard at Mariucci Arena on Saturday night, it appeared the semifinal matchup between Michigan State and the best team in the nation wasn’t as close as it really was.
The Spartans outshot the Gophers during all three periods, even drawing first blood with a junior forward Jeremy Davidson power-play goal, but in the end, the first-seeded Minnesota roster, overflowing with NHL prospects, was too much to handle for the duration of regulation.
“I really liked us in the first … I don't know if I thought we should have been down 2-1, but we had a really good push in the third,” Michigan State head hockey coach Adam Nightingale said. “I thought we played hungry, I thought we played hard, I thought we got to the inside … made some good saves. When you talk about trying to win a playoff game, we executed on the power play, had some really good looks, so, a lot of good moments.”
MSU got on the board first, when Gopher's freshman forward Logan Cooley sat for elbowing and junior defenseman Nash Nienhuis and graduate student Miroslav Mucha passed the puck back and forth near the boards to the left of Gopher senior goaltender Justen Close. Mucha launched it through an opening where Davidson was waiting. With Close’s back turned and Davidson unchecked, he was able to skillfully fire it into the net to give the Spartans an early lead.
Minnesota responded with five goals throughout three periods to which the Spartans had no answer.
The Gophers evened the score thanks to senior forward Jaxson Nelson, who beat graduate student goaltender Dylan St. Cyr on the man-advantage when freshman defenseman Viktor Hurtig was whistled for tripping.
Just before first period intermission, the Gophers climbed back on top with a goal from in front of the net by freshman forward John Mittelstadt.
MSU kept battling, rifling 17 shots at Close in the final 40 minutes, but it was no use. Two minutes into the second period, Gopher sophomore forward Aaron Huglen was wide open in front of St. Cyr, putting Minnesota up 3-1.
Then, the Spartans fell victim to what can be described as a lucky bounce when Cooley nailed the boards with the puck above MSU’s net, which then hit St. Cyr in the back and crossed the goal line to make it a 4-1 game before the netminder had time to process what happened.
Cooley tallied his second of the night, finding the empty net after MSU pulled St. Cyr in exchange for an extra skater for what would be a final score of 5-1.
The Gophers locked in first place weeks ago, earning the quarterfinals bye last weekend. Although they hadn’t played a game since Feb. 25, they didn’t look the least bit rusty.
“They’re a really good team, a lot of talent and well-coached, so, obviously, they had our number all year, but as far as the effort and attitude and team play, I couldn't be prouder of the guys,” Nightingale said.
Minnesota heads back to its home ice on March 18 to take on second-seeded Michigan in the Big Ten Championship.
Year one of the Nightingale era
Before the start of the season, the Spartans were projected to finish last in the Big Ten.
Fast forward to March, MSU earned a spot in the semifinal round of the conference tournament and a shot at first seeded Minnesota. In securing a series victory over Notre Dame, the Spartans recorded 18 wins, the most the program has seen since 2011-12.
Despite the many strides made during Nightingale’s first year behind the bench, MSU just couldn’t manage the Gophers. In fact, Minnesota was the only Big Ten team the Spartans couldn’t get by, having defeated the other five programs at least once.
Even though the Spartans failed to advance to the Big Ten Championship game and dropped the semifinal matchup, they surpassed expectations.
Contrary to most of the last decade, the end of the season doesn’t bring a sigh of relief after a long losing streak or a painful year, but rather a glimpse of hope for what’s to come in the Nightingale era.
“I've had a blast. I'm thankful for the group of guys, thankful for their buy in,” Nightingale said of his first season coaching his alma mater. “I'm really proud of the way guys do things professional, the way they do things with class. I could probably think of one and a half practices where I didn't like us this whole year, and that's pretty rare, in college.”
With a mix of freshmen, transfers and players who stayed through a coaching change on the roster, there were question marks about how everyone would mesh. Through the ups and downs and growing pains, Nightingale believed in his players.
“If you watched us play games, I would never ever question our effort or trying to play as a team … we talked about laying the foundation, you know, we want a rock-solid foundation for a program,” Nightingale said. “Those seniors should be really proud of it, and hopefully we get a chance to play again.”
The semifinal loss could mark the end of Michigan State’s season, but as they sit at No. 16 in the PairWise rankings, the Spartans are still in the running for an NCAA tournament bid. Although, they no longer control their own destiny and need help from other teams to bump them up higher.
“Obviously, if there's a chance, then we’ll go,” Nightingale said. “I think these guys want to keep playing hockey, and I thought we had a good year. I'd love for an opportunity for this group to play again, but it's out of our control now.”