EAST LANSING, MI- The Gophers took a B1G step towards a fifth consecutive regular season conference title.
Minnesota's defense shined on both ends of the ice Friday when the Gophers needed it most. Matching the Spartans for two periods, Minnesota pulled ahead in the third. Freshman Tommy Novak did the rest as the Gophers found some offense from outside its junior core in a hard-fought 4-2 road victory that clinches a first-round bye in the Big Ten conference tournament.
Seconds after Michigan State senior Matt DeBlouw hit the post for the second consecutive power play, Novak atoned for his penalty by scoring the go-ahead third period goal.
"Find a way to win a third period. That's what it boils down to this time of the year a lot," said Gophers head coach Don Lucia after his team came back to win after giving up the opening goal for the second consecutive game. "It wasn't the prettiest game, but the bottom line is that it's 3 points. We'll take it and move on to tomorrow night."
Sophomore defenseman Jack Glover scored twice for Minnesota (18-14-0, 13-4-0 Big Ten), whose Big Ten lead is now 4 points over Michigan with 3 games remaining. The Wolverines lost at home 7-4 to Ohio State.
Glover entered Friday's game with one goal in 52 career games. He left with three, including an empty netter that bounced off the boards and into the net to seal the victory.
"A little bit unexpected honestly," he admitted. "A couple good bounces, a couple good plays by the guys around me. Pretty easy goals although the second one I probably couldn't do it one more time if I tried it a thousand times. It was cool to see it go in."
After DeBlouw got the Spartans on the board following a defensive turnover by Minnesota 4:37 into the game, Glover took advantage of early rebound control issues by MSU goaltender Jake Hildebrand, poking in a Novak rebound to tie the game at 1.
"We knew that especially in the neutral zone they keep four guys back. We knew it was a big key to the game to control the puck, not turn it over, to not play into their trap," Glover said.
Juniors Taylor Cammarata and Mackenzie MacEachern traded goals 41 seconds apart in the second period. Cammarata deflected a Michael Brodzinski shot while MacEachern earned his 13th goal of the season on the ensuing shift.
"That's what you have to have. You can't have the same four guys score every night," Lucia said.
Both teams traded chances as the game's chippiness escalated. The Gophers spent much of the week practicing its defense and being
"I thought (defense partner) Nick (Seeler) and I played a good game defensively. That's something we pride ourselves on," said Glover, happy with shutting down Michigan State's top line and limiting gaps. "Anytime we can add offense it's great."
Justin Kloos and Hudson Fasching began a rush as Novak's penalty for elbowing expired. As the play broke down, the puck went to the freshman, who buried it past Hildebrand for his fifth goal of the season.
Hildebrand made 24 saves. Eric Schierhorn made 18, including a shorthanded breakaway on MacEachern that kept the game tied in the third.
Minnesota still likely needs to win the Big Ten's automatic bid in the conference tournament March 17-19 to be safely in the NCAA Tournament. Its road will be one game easier after Friday. The Gophers cannot finish worse than the second seed, earning an automatic bye into Friday's semifinal.
Getting a victory by any means and playing a well-rounded game on the road - the fifth straight win away from Mariucci for Minnesota - is where the Gophers want to be. To get a sixth requires sweeping Michigan State at Munn for the first time in Big Ten play.
"In March now we're trying to get every point that we can. A crucial point in the season. Obviously we want to win the conference and be healthy coming into the playoffs so every game we're looking to win all three points," said Novak. "It's crucial."
The Gophers and Spartans play again Saturday at 7:00 p.m. ET/6:00 p.m. CT.
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