Big Ten Hockey: Minnesota vs. Michigan State series preview

The Gophers look to end the first half with a pair of wins over Michigan State - Minnesota Athletics

The Spartans open up Big Ten play at home against a Minnesota team coming off of a sweep against Wisconsin.

After a home sweep over Wisconsin, the Gophers finish its first half by beginning Big Ten play in earnest.

Minnesota (11-2-1, 2-0-0-0 Big Ten) travels to East Lansing, Michigan for the first-ever conference road trip this weekend. Friday's opener begins at 7:00 p.m. ET (6 Central) and Saturday's finale starts at 4:00 p.m. ET (3 Central).

It's a weekend that, one way or another, Gophers players have been thinking about for a while. The Spartans stopped Minnesota in the team's last trip to East Lansing nearly two years ago. Although it was a non-conference showdown on Thanksgiving weekend, MSU held off a late Minnesota charge for a 4-3 win and then tied 4-4 on a Daultan Leveille goal in the third period the next night.

Only Denver, who swept Minnesota, held the Gophers without a win in multiple games that year.

However, there is a different reason why the Gophers remember Munn Arena. It's the rink itself.

"It's just tiny. The actual rink is really small and the boards were really goofy and the biggest home ice advantage you ever saw setup," senior Nate Condon told me back in September. "Complete opposite of Mariucci (where Minnesota plays) because Mariucci is a football field."

That gets put to the test this weekend. The Gophers have had success against MSU recently at home after to open last season with 5-1 and 7-1 wins, but no one currently on the team has won a game at Munn.

For Michigan State (5-7-0, 0-0-0-0 Big Ten), picked to finish tied for 4th in the conference, Friday and Saturday's game are its first in the Big Ten, which began sponsoring men's hockey in 2013-14. The Spartans handily swept Princeton in non-conference play last weekend. Although the Tigers are currently struggling with injuries and icing a complete lineup, Michigan State took full advantage of a situation that head coach Tom Anastos knows all too well.

MSU was without sophomore defenseman John Draeger (Minnesota Wild draft pick) and junior forward Matt Berry for the team's first 8 games. Both underwent offseason leg surgery. Berry, last year's leading scorer with 31 points (15G-16A) and who scored the tying goal against Minnesota in 2011, came back at a great time for the Spartans.

Michigan State struggled prior to the Princeton series to score goals and had just 12 in six games. Anastos' squad, coming off a four game losing streak filled with penalties, matched that against Princeton.

Two players - senior Greg Wolfe (7G-5A) and freshman Mackenzie MacEachern (5G-3A) - have combined for 12 of MSU's 25 goals this season.

Still, it's a tough task for the Spartans to go up against Minnesota's defense and Adam Wilcox, which has given up on average 2.14 goals per game. (Michigan State is averaging 2.58 goals per game - good for 39th - even with the 12 goal output.)

Minnesota will be missing a pair of forwards this weekend. Freshman forward Taylor Cammarata (New York Islanders), who missed both games against Wisconsin last weekend, will return this weekend against Michigan State for the team's first-ever Big Ten road series. The Gophers, however, will be without both physical senior forward Tom Serratore and freshman forward Vinni Lettieri.

Head coach Don Lucia said Wednesday that neither would make the trip to East Lansing.

"Obviously we're going to have some changes," said Lucia. "It affects the penalty kill. Obviously that line played terrific last weekend and a big reason why we won."

The biggest change this weekend is losing Serratore. The senior was injured in practice Tuesday and had an MRI Wednesday to check on a sprained ankle. He has been part of a line with Seth Ambroz (Columbus Blue Jackets), who scored four goals last weekend against Wisconsin, and Travis Boyd (Washington Capitals) that has been Minnesota's most productive recently.

Serratore has two goals this season and both have come while being reunited with the two. (Serratore, Ambroz and Boyd spent much of last year together.)

"We can't dwell on Tommy being out," Ambroz said Wednesday. "Hopefully he'll be back at the end of the (month-long) break."

Where one guy goes down, another can step up for Minnesota. The Gophers continue to hover near the top of college hockey in total offense and one reason for that has been its depth. Lucia's team is averaging 4.14 goals per game - having scored 3 or more goals in 6 of the last 7 games - and 5 players have 5 or more goals this season.

That doesn't include last year's leading returning scorer, Kyle Rau (Florida Panthers), who has 3 on a team-leading 43 shots. They will be facing a goalie in sophomore Jake Hildebrand who has a .908 save percentage in 9 games.

Offense will be something to keep in mind as Minnesota closes out the first half on the road playing in a small rink.

"It'll be a new environment for a lot of the guys. I heard they're a strong, fast team so we'll prepare for that," said Brady Skjei. "I heard it's a tough environment to play in so we'll take it from there and hopefully come out with four [sic] points."

Minnesota and Michigan State play Friday and Saturday in East Lansing, Michigan. Friday's game will be broadcast on Fox Sports North Plus and Fox Sports Detroit Plus. Saturday's game will be broadcast on Fox Sports North and Fox Sports Detroit.

--

Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation and College Hockey News. You can also follow him on Twitter --

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