MINNEAPOLIS – The power play unit and upperclassmen came through at a crucial time for the 8th ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers, and now they’ll have home ice in the Big Ten tournament for the first round.
Goals by senior skaters Sammy Walker and Ben Brinkman allowed the Gophers to hold off the Michigan State Spartans 3-1 on Saturday night for a weekend sweep at 3M Arena at Mariucci, and they are now guaranteed to play on home ice for at least the first round of the conference tournament.
Not that that’s a big deal to head coach Bob Motzko at the moment, however.
“We did? All right, good,” he laughed. “I haven’t looked at it for a while, but good to know.”
Walker had goals less than two minutes apart in the middle of the third period to break a tie, and according to Motzko, Walker and his linemates on the top line were challenged earlier Saturday morning by the head coach to come up big. It’s pretty safe to say that happened.
“Our line’s gotta produce,” Walker said. “It was nice that we could get a couple there.”
As for Brinkman? His goal was a long time coming. It was just the second of his career.
“I haven’t been much of a goal scorer, but I just found the right area,” Brinkman said. “It wasn’t really like a relief; it was just more like I haven’t had that feeling in a while.”
It was Minnesota’s turn for a quick strike on Saturday; they drew first blood just 1:39 into the contest as a 3-on-2 rush ended on a beautiful centering feed by Rhett Pitlick to Ben Brinkman, who sniped it home for his first goal since November 2018 – a span of 123 games.
“I don’t think [Brinkman] could have shot the puck any harder,” Motzko said. “The thing is, he can do that. That was a great goal. We see him do that in practice; we invite him to do that in games.”
The goal was just part of a dominant opening period for the Gophers – they drew two power plays, controlled play offensively with a very good forecheck and held the Spartans to just four shots on goal with three of them in the final five minutes.
Still, Michigan State was not about to roll over. Drew DeRidder kept the Spartans in it with some big saves, and Jesse Tucker tied the game 16 seconds into the second period, temporarily silencing the crowd of 8,305. It became a battle of goaltending on both ends with DeRidder and Justen Close making big saves.
“That’s hockey,” Motzko said. “We ran into a hot goalie, but then too they started to feed off of it.”
Then on a delayed penalty halfway through the third, Walker, who’s the only remaining captain on the team at the moment (Ben Meyers is playing in the Olympics and Jack LaFontaine left for the NHL), fired from the right circle on a delayed penalty for his 10th of the season, breaking the tie at last. He added another one on the ensuing power play 1:28 later for insurance, which was also Minnesota’s first power play goal of the weekend.
“There’s your captain when you need him. Sammy was outstanding all game,” Motzko said.
DeRidder finished with 32 saves for the Spartans, and Justen Close had 25 for the Gophers.
With three weeks left in the regular season, Minnesota will play at home for at least the first round of the Big Ten tournament. They currently sit in third place in the conference and they travel to face second-place Ohio State for a big series next weekend. Meanwhile, Michigan State will face Michigan in Ann Arbor and Detroit in a two-game set.
MINN goal at 1:39: Ben Brinkman (1). Assisted by Rhett Pitlick (9) and Mason Nevers (4).
MSU goal at :16: Jesse Tucker (2). Assisted by Jeremy Davidson (8).
MINN goal on delayed penalty: Sammy Walker (10). Assisted by Jackson LaCombe (15) and Carl Fish (5).
MINN power play goal at 12:07: Walker (11). Assisted by Ryan Johnson (14) and LaCombe (16).
Power plays: MSU 0-3, MINN 1-5.
Shots on goal: MSU 26, MINN 35.