MINNEAPOLIS- Normally sitting on the far right end of the bench, Nick Lehr's normal spot was taken Thursday by the man who had started every other game this season.
Instead, the freshman goaltender, who had officially made only a single appearance in net, was given his biggest opportunity against Michigan State on a national platform. With Adam Wilcox getting the night off to rest injuries suffered in Saturday's OT loss against Penn State, Lehr found out Wednesday he would be making his first collegiate start.
After a shaky stretch, he made the most of it thanks to the help of his teammates against one of the Big Ten's best defenses.
The Gophers came back from a three goal first-period deficit to defeat Michigan State 5-3 for a signature win in a tight Big Ten hockey race it had been lacking.
"I'm really happy for Nick," head coach Don Lucia said after the game, his 390th career win that ties him with Doug Woog for the most in Minnesota hockey history. "We talked about it and it's all about being a team. Guys have to step up."
Travis Boyd scored his team-leading 16th goal of the season. Sam Warning scored twice, including the go-ahead goal in the second period, and added an assist. Mike Reilly also had three points (1G-2A) for the Gophers, who now have a 3 point lead in the Big Ten standings over Michigan with 5 games remaining. (The idle Wolverines have a game in hand.)
Stopping 21 Spartans shots, Lehr settled down over the final 50 minutes. It wasn't that easy. At times it wasn't anything close to resembling beauty on the ice.
"I'll say it's a big win for us. We definitely came back and I think that's a big thing for us to show that we can do that and be a team that if we do get down can battle back and do that," he said.
Before, however, Michigan State shocked the announced crowd of 9,651 at Mariucci Arena by getting out to a fast lead.
It took six seconds on the Spartans' first power play to take a 1-0 lead. Michigan State sophomore forward Joe Cox shot the puck past Lehr from the point on the team's first shot 1:25 into the game.
Brent Darnell scored his 7th goal of the season eight minutes later before Cox got his second of the game just over a minute later on a wraparound attempt.
By the time the middle of the period media timeout happened, the Spartans led 3-0 on a total of 4 shots.
Lucia told Lehr, who had played 80 games of junior hockey for the Austin Bruins (NAHL), to relax during the ensuing media timeout. Senior defenseman Ben Marshall told him to be comfortable and have fun on the way back to the goal.
He settled in and played the rest of the game comfortably. Lehr's Minnesota teammates were able to block shots and control puck possession, out-shooting Michigan State 42-24. It helped that the next couple shots to begin the second period went square right to his gut, according to him.
"I think this was kind of like a hug for me. Alright. We'll go from here," he said.
Boyd got the Gophers on the board with 1:39 remaining in the opening period when he tapped home Sam Warning's rebound past Jake Hildebrand on Minnesota's 13th shot of the period.
"I think that kind of got us going a bit," Warning said. "Boyd's been having a good season ... he just went to the net and when you go to the net good things happen."
The Gophers continued in the second period with three goals to re-take the lead with 1:30 remaining in the middle frame. Defenseman Mike Reilly, who leads the team with 37 points, had the last laugh on Hildebrand. The Michigan State goaltender initially made a diving save to stop a one-timer from Reilly. It wasn't enough. Reilly was able to get his own rebound past on an odd angle to cut the lead to one.
Going to the net against the Michigan State defense continued to pay off Thursday; especially on the power play where the Gophers went 2 for 4. Hudson Fasching tied the game at 3 on a loose puck at the crease. Warning then tipped a Leon Bristedt shot into the net for the go-ahead goal.
"I didn't do much besides stay in the slot," he said. "You can tell how much Leon has grown as a player since the year started. I just put my stick there and he made a great pass and it went in."
Warning added an empty netter with 1.2 seconds remaining,
Michigan State defenseman John Draeger had a couple opportunities in the third period that were cleared. Ryan Collins was able to get in front of a Matt Berry chance with an open net and Boyd dove to break up a second period shorthanded attempt by MSU. The Gophers killed a Justin Kloos penalty in the third period and Lehr ended the night surrounded, mobbed by his teammates
While Wilcox may be available to start - Lucia wouldn't completely go in that direction - it is one the freshman won't forget. Neither will anyone else who experienced the swing in momentum Thursday.
"For me it was just a great experience and kind of fun to get it going," Lehr said.
Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate