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Gophers Hockey: Postgame thoughts from Minnesota's 5-3 win over Michigan State

Nick Lehr (34) made his first start Thursday.
Nick Lehr (34) made his first start Thursday.
Matt Christians

First off, hoping that Michigan State's Travis Walsh ends up okay after blocking a shot with his helmet. We've had a few of those scary sights at Mariucci Arena this year. Most notably, Vinni Lettieri has had to be helped off twice and they are never fun to see.

As for Adam Wilcox, his injury does not look to be serious after being "officially" "kind of day-to-day" with what was called a "body" injury, according to head coach Don Lucia. He went out for warmups Thursday and appeared fine leaving the rink after the game.

Also he had a body throughout the night.

When asked about when Wilcox, who had started every game this season before Nick Lehr made 21 saves in Thursday's 5-3 win, was injured, Lucia said it happened during Saturday's game at Penn State.  The decision to play Lehr began to happen Wednesday, but was finalized on game day.

There's a chance Wilcox plays in Friday's finale.

"If we were going to play (Wilcox) one game, it was going to be (Friday) so we'll see how he is (Friday). He's made a lot of progress this week," he said Thursday. "I think there will be a good chance he'll play (Friday)."

Honestly I'd be surprised if he didn't, but that's a guess more than anything.

Read last night's recap here and some more postgame notes and analysis below.

1. Nick Lehr was shaky, but he got the job done

On paper having a freshman goaltender making his first start against one of the Big Ten's best in Jake Hildebrand is a tough task for anyone. About midway through Thursday's first period it felt like a task worthy for Sisyphus. Gopher forwards were unleashing shots on Hildebrand, giving him their best effort.

At one point in the first period the shots were 12-4 Minnesota and the two goalies couldn't have been different. Michigan State's Hildebrand stopped several close-range shots and a tip by Kyle Rau. Lehr gave up 3 goals with at least 2 of them being ones he would want back.

"Pucks went in. Pucks found ways to get in," Michigan State head coach Tom Anastos said about the early part of the game. "Then we couldn't kill a couple penalties and an untimely penalty gave (Minnesota) some life and changed the momentum of the game."

Lehr was able to settle down somewhat in the second and third periods, finishing the game with his first win and not allowing a goal. He didn't have to make any outstanding saves. The ones Lehr did were also ones he missed earlier.

Although he admitted he had nerves making the first start, Lehr was able to get the job done. We now know he can play in case Wilcox cannot at any other point down the stretch and have a body of work that isn't a mop-up role to show.

It just won't be compared with a priceless work of art.

2. The defense taking away opportunities turned things around as much as scoring

Mike Reilly continued his scoring prowess, getting his 30th and 31st assist (and had a third until it was taken away by the scorers). Sam Warning hit double digits with the empty-net goal and made several individual efforts that resulted in power play opportunities (where the nation's best PP went 2 for 4). Hudson Fasching and Travis Boyd each scored on Hildebrand in the dirty areas by the net.

But it was the on the other side of the rink where I thought Minnesota did a better job in the second and third periods. Defensemen were able to clear Lehr's rebounds. Forwards continued to dive at shots even after Walsh got hurt doing the same. Boyd, who had his team-leading 16th goal of the season earlier, did so both when the team was losing (stopping a potential 2 on 0 shorthanded attempt by Michigan State) and trying to hold a lead (getting in front of a John Draeger shot).

Anything to make Lehr's job easier helped. Same goes regardless of who is in the Gopher net.

3. Minnesota's comeback had major Pairwise implications

If the comeback was a defining moment for the Gophers - or at least continuing one over the last 9 games - the end result was one that is a reminder how small the margin is for Minnesota when it comes to being in the NCAA Tournament.

The Gophers remain 10th in the Pairwise, which mimics the criteria the NCAA uses to select at-large bids and seed the tournament. A loss to the Spartans in the night's only college hockey hockey game would have dropped Minnesota to 14. A tie would leave them at 13 and barely in the safe zone.

If the Gophers don't win the Big Ten conference tournament and get the automatic bid, it will have to finish at least 14th in the Pairwise. Both the Atlantic Hockey and Big Ten bids won't be in the top 16. There's always a chance 1 or 2 aren't. All Minnesota can do is play the teams left ahead, but the Gophers probably need to win at least 3 more of the remaining games to be safe.

Thursday was also Lucia's 390th win, tying him with Doug Woog for the most wins in Minnesota history. Woog was in the building Friday and Minnesota's current coach spoke about his predecessor.

"I just really appreciate the relationship Doug and I have. Since Day 1 when I've come here, Doug has been a part of the program and he's meant so much to Gopher hockey as a player and a coach," he said. "I just really appreciate the relationship Doug and I have had over the years."

Bonus thought: Despite continually screwing up that it wasn't Friday, I actually like the occasional Thursday game. It's a great way to have a national showcase. While not the best for attendance compared with the weekend, one of the hardest things to do is stand out in a crowded college hockey field.


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 --