By Jess Myers
EAST LANSING, Mich. — When Michigan State scored early on Sunday, Jan. 20, the Minnesota Gophers had an answer. When the Spartans scored in the second period, the Gophers had an answer.
By the time the Spartans scored two more, the Gophers had run out of answers.
Mitchell Lewandoski had two goals for the Spartans for the second consecutive night, and the Gophers headed back west as victims of another 5-3 Michigan State win.
It was the first time the Gophers (9-10-4 overall, 6-5-3-0 Big Ten) had been swept by Michigan State in a weekend series since February of 1976. Blake McLaughlin, Rem Pitlick and Jack Sadek scored for Minnesota, which will play its next four at home.
“It was not a good weekend for Gopher hockey. We played in the third period. We played one period out of the six,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said. “I wish I could sit here with an answer because we’re all completely blindsided after what we’ve just gone through. To show up, there just wasn’t a lot in our tank this weekend.”
Indicative of the parity in the Big Ten, the Spartans (9-12-3, 5-7-2-2) entered the weekend in the cellar, and had moved into third place by the end of the game. Defenseman Zach Osburn had four assists for Michigan State, which won three of four from the Gophers this season.
“That’s a big sweep for us … this is a Big Ten series and Minnesota’s had their way with us,” said Spartans coach Danton Cole, who was 0-4 versus Minnesota last season — his first behind the bench for his alma mater. “Last year we played some good games against them, but to win the (season) series 3-1, to get six points here at home, we’re not leaving anything on the table.”
After an early Spartans goal, the Gophers’ red hot freshmen answered on the game’s first power play, with Sammy Walker feeding McLaughin, who used defenseman Tommy Miller as a screen, then fooled Lethemon with a shot to the glove side. It was the fourth consecutive game where the all-freshman line of Walker, McLaughlin and Nathan Burke has contributed points.
“They’ve got some chemistry going. They each know where each guy is going to be and they’re forechecking well. They’ve all got some speed and they work hard, so it’s working for them,” said Gophers co-captain Brent Gates Jr. “They play a simple game. It’s not like they’re doing anything special, but that’s what works and the rest of our lines, we need to follow in that lead and figure that out.”
In the second period, the Spartans again took a lead, and again the Gophers responded, via their most consistent source of offense. This time Tommy Novak circled behind the net with the puck and slipped a pass to Pitlick, who was closing hard from the right side. Pitlick hit an open net with the puck before Lethemon could get across the crease. The goaltender complained that he’d been bumped by a Gopher, but after video review, the goal stood, for Pitlick’s team-best 12th of the season.
But Michigan State needed less than 90 seconds to re-take the lead on a blast from the blue line by Cole Krygier that made its way through a crowd and past Gophers goalie Mat Robson. And the Spartans’ offense-heavy top line clicked with 11.6 seconds left in the period when Lewandowski scored, putting the Gophers in a two-goal hole.
Robson, who started and turned aside 22 of the 26 shots he faced in the first 40 minutes, was replaced by Eric Schierhorn in the third period. Schierhorn had six saves on seven shots.
Sadek scored near the midway point of the third to pull the Gophers back within one, hitting the upper left corner of the net with a shot from the top of the right circle. It was his second goal of the season, and his first since Nov. 16. But Lewandowski scored his fourth of the weekend when a shot by Osburn deflected off Lewandowski’s skate and past Schierhorn. The Spartans’ top offensive unit of Lewandowski, Patrick Khodorenko and Taro Hirose played a role in six of the team’s 10 goals on the weekend.
“They’re a really tough line. Especially when they’re using speed, they’re really tough to get,” McLaughlin said. “We were out there for a couple of their goals. There’s just so much experience and confidence and talent on that line. They’re pretty hard to stop.”
Lethemon had 37 saves for Michigan State, which had not beaten the Gophers twice in a weekend at home since January of 1973, before Munn Ice Arena was built.