MINNEAPOLIS – First place always has a nice ring to it.
Considering where the Minnesota Golden Gophers were sitting just a month ago, their current run to the top is even more remarkable. Yet, it’s a reality.
Minnesota won their sixth straight game by beating 19th-ranked Michigan State 4-1 on Friday night at 3M Arena at Mariucci, and thanks to Penn State and Ohio State’s 2-2 draw in Columbus earlier in the evening, the Gophers pulled even with the Buckeyes for first place in the Big Ten standings.
Scott Reedy scored twice and had an assist for Minnesota, which has won eight of their last nine contests to jump to #17 in the Pairwise rankings. The Gophers (13-10-4, 8-5-4-3 B1G) have nearly doubled their win total for the season during the winning streak, but head coach Bob Motzko knows there’s a lot of hockey left to be played. He didn’t even know his team was tied atop the conference standings until the public address announcer said so after the game.
“I heard that coming off the ice. I cringed,” he said. “We have a chance to win the [season] series with Michigan State. That’s all we talk about. We want to win our series.”
Knowing just what kind of challenge Michigan State goaltender John Lethemon posed, Minnesota got off to the hot started they needed as Blake McLaughlin scored on the game’s first shot on a low wrister after just 1:11 came off the clock.
“Their goalie is #1 in the league,” McLaughlin said. “Getting the first goal is just unbelievable. Puck went in and kinda rattled him because he didn’t have a save at the time, so that was pretty big for us.”
It wouldn’t be long before the Spartans (13-13-1, 9-7-1-0) responded. Mitchell Lewandowski got helpers from his first-line teammates as he scored on a one-timer on a power play to tie the game.
Michigan State wasn’t able to stop Minnesota from pressuring in their zone for the majority of the night, and the Gophers put up two more goals in the second period to go back on top. Sampo Ranta and Reedy both scored on rebounds out in front of Lethemon, and the latter came with 1.9 seconds remaining in the second, firing up the home crowd of 8,860.
“I think any goal under a minute is gonna hurt the other team, and especially just putting a buzzer-beater in kinda really just fuels us, gives us a little more insurance going into the locker room,” McLaughlin said.
Lethemon came into the weekend with a Big Ten-best 1.88 goals-allowed-average and a .943 save percentage, which is the best in college hockey. He did make 22 saves overall, but the rebounds he gave up against the physical Minnesota forecheck proved costly.
The Gophers were put back on their heels in the opening minutes of the third period as the Spartans started to generate more offensive zone pressure; of their 15 shots in the first two periods, six came courtesy of their two power plays. But Jared Moe, who made 22 saves, wasn’t yielding.
Michigan State wasn’t able to threaten again until the final two-and-a-half minutes, and Lethemon didn’t come off for the extra skater until about 1:20 remained. Reedy finally finished it off with his second goal of the game, and when the final seconds ticked off, Minnesota found themselves on top of the Big Ten. They’re thinking about more than home ice in the conference playoffs at this point.
The two teams conclude their weekend and season series with a 5:00 CT puck drop on Saturday.
MINN goal at 1:11: Blake McLaughlin (5). Assisted by Scott Reedy (5) and Ryan Johnson (8).
MSU power-play goal at 8:18: Mitchell Lewandowski (8). Assisted by Sam Saliba (6) and Patrick Khodorenko (15).
MINN goal at 4:45: Sampo Ranta (11). Assisted by Brannon McManus (13) and Ben Meyers (15).
MINN goal at 19:58: Reedy (12). Assisted by Sammy Walker (11) and McLaughlin (10).
MINN empty-net goal at 19:41: Reedy (13). Assisted by Walker (12) and McLaughlin (11).
Power plays: MSU 1-2, MINN 0-2.
Shots on goal: MSU 23, MINN 26.