MINNEAPOLIS- Nearly a year to the day Connor Reilly had to be helped off the ice in Madison, his third major knee injury in three years ending a storybook season, the redshirt junior scored the game winning goal for Minnesota against Michigan State.
It was an important milestone to say the least.
The Gophers came back from a third period deficit with three goals to earn its first sweep of the Spartans in Big Ten play.
Reilly scored his second goal of the season - and first with a goalie in the net since his injury January 31, 2015- and Minnesota (11-10-0, 6-2-0-0) was able to get above .500 for the first time this year with the 3-1 victory.
"We're thrilled," said a smiling Justin Kloos. "Obviously we've been climbing out. Started out 0-3, I think everyone was still in summer hockey mode for some reason. I'll take full blame for that."
Kloos, who scored for the third straight game, and freshman Tyler Sheehy each had three points Saturday. Freshman Eric Schierhorn made 17 saves and a big stop on Connor Wood. His Michigan State counterpart Jake Hildebrand stopped 29 of 31 shots, looking more like the goalie named Big Ten Player of the Year a season ago.
Reilly, meanwhile, had a goal and an assist in a . He spent several shifts towards the end of the second period off of his line with Kloos and Sheehy and admittedly believed he was playing for his game during the third period. Reunited, Kloos scored 31 seconds into the period.
His linemate was rewarded 11 minutes later. Reilly skated back towards the faceoff dot, got the puck, turned and fired.
"I've been in a little bit of a rut so it was nice to get to rewarded. It was pretty lucky to be honest, but I'll take anything I can get. I've been a little snakebit," said Reilly, adding that it was a mental battle to break through and compete hard while battling through the goalless steak.
Michigan State scored the first goal of the game 2:53 into the second period. After being out-shot 14-5 in the first period, Matt DeBlouw skated through the slot and fired a quick shot that Schierhorn could not glove.
The Gophers entered the night 2-9-0 when giving up the first goal, but were able to find a rhythm between the second intermission and third.
"There's a difference between trying hard and trying hard. Sometimes you think you're going hard and you are competing the way you have to do, but we as coaches didn't think we were quite at the level that we needed to be at," said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia. "Especially with moving our feet. We left too many guys on an island, didn't think we were attacking the net too hard and staying on the perimeter.
"That's an area we thought we needed to improve upon with the way (Hildebrand) was playing."
Leon Bristedt added an empty net goal at the buzzer for the final score.
Minnesota held off the Spartans, winners of only one of its last 16 games, during a late Michigan State power play and empty net. The team effort was a big confidence booster and step to take, Kloos said.
"A lot of games this year where we haven't had our ‘A game' we let slip away even if we're in the lead. Tonight we found a way in the locker room to do what it took," he said.
"I was honestly focused on scoring goals. I was focused on the end result ... (assistant coach Grant Potulny) told me if you focus on the little things and the process and working hard you'll get out of it", added Reilly, who celebrated his goal by dropping to a knee.
The Gophers celebrate a hard working sweep by heading to Madison next week in first place in the Big Ten.
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