MINNEAPOLIS- Once again the Spartans prove to be tough for Minnesota to sweep.
Michigan State kept its Big Ten regular season championship hopes alive Friday with a 4-2 road victory over the Gophers to avoid a sweep and split a two-game series.
Focusing on defense and testing Minnesota goaltender Adam Wilcox, returning after resting minor injuries Thursday, with 34 shots on goal, the Spartans shut down a maroon and gold comeback attempt and picked up its first-ever Big Ten regulation win over the Gophers.
Ryan Keller had a goal and an assist Friday for MSU. Wilcox made 30 saves and Kyle Rau had both goals for Minnesota, which played from behind early once again.
"The best team won tonight," said Gophers head coach Don Lucia, whose attempt to get the most wins in Minnesota hockey history was foiled. "In the first period we lost a lot of draws. They started with the puck a lot and we had a good early momentum in the first 5-6 minutes, but then they kind of took the first period over."
Spartans junior John Draeger did not waste any time in the second period in front of his hometown friends and family. After a scoreless first where Michigan State out-shot Minnesota 14-7 and only Gophers freshman Leon Bristedt came close to scoring, hitting the bottom of the crossbar, the Fairbault, MN native pinched in from the blue line uncharacteristically and took over.
Draeger, falling away and spinning next to Wilcox, put a backhand past the Gopher goalie to give MSU a 1-0 lead 44 seconds into the period.
Normally a defensive defenseman, Draeger's feat of offensive trickery was only his second collegiate goal and first since October 27, 2012.
"Oh man...it was like a root canal finally coming to fruition," Michigan State head coach Tom Anastos said about his goal.
Rau got his 14th goal of the season four minutes later in a spot where he normally does his scoring. The senior captain, sitting in front of goaltender Jake Hildebrand, was able to tie the game and give Minnesota momentum following the fourth straight game the Gophers had given up the game's first goal.
Minnesota wasn't able to replicate Thursday's performance when the Gophers scored five unanswered goals, however. Instead, the Spartans sandwiched Rau's goal with ones early and late.
Hildebrand denied Hudson Fasching with a kick save. Vinni Lettieri missed an open net following Minnesota's first power play with 2:45 left. A minute later the Spartans took advantage to end the period ahead whenKeller was able to sneak a shot through that Wilcox couldn't contain.
"We had some chances in the second to go up 2-1," said Lucia. "They were pucks we didn't finish on and maybe we go up 2-1 and maybe the outcome is a little different."
Michigan State shut down the Gophers in the third period, keeping them away from the net and allowing only three shots on goal in the first 15 minutes of the 3rd period.
Spartans captain Michael Ferrantino made it 3-1 MSU 7:04 into the third when he was able to get a Keller shot on his stick and bury the rebound for his 10th goal of the season. On the power play, Rau cut the score to 3-2 with 4:24 in Friday's game when he got his second of the game once again in his playland in front of the Michigan State goalie, who made 22 saves Friday.
"I was just getting to the net and sometimes around the net the puck finds you. My first one the puck was just laying there - kind of lucky - and the second one the puck came flying to me and I hit it out of the air," Rau said. "That's how it goes. Sometimes you have to go around the net to lucky."
Although his goal gave Minnesota the life it had been missing in front of 9,981 fans, the fervent attempts to complete the comeback did not produce the equalizer. They ended when Hudson Fasching was called for roughing with 1:52 remaining and Michigan State's Thomas Ebbing scored with 36.6 seconds remaining.
The Spartans, who have gained points in all four B1G series against Minnesota, become the first team to defeat Minnesota at Mariucci Arena in the long, two year history of Big Ten conference play. Before Friday, the Gophers had not been defeated in a conference game since then-WCHA foe Denver did so on March 1, 2013 (a stretch of 20 games where it went 18-0-2).
For Minnesota, the loss and Spartans' resiliency gives Michigan, playing last place Wisconsin tomorrow, a chance to take the Big Ten conference lead with four regular season games remaining. The Spartans sit in third 2 points behind.
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