In the preseason predictions that had the Minnesota Gophers atop the Big Ten, the experts talked most about the team’s depth and experience. In winning all of their first half-dozen games, and sweeping their first road series of the season, the Gophers have displayed all of that and more.
The depth was on display Friday night in the Gophers’ 4-2 win at Michigan State, which keeps them undefeated on the young season. While the usual suspects like Ben Meyers and Scott Reedy scored, and senior goalie Jack LaFontaine got another win despite what he described as an off night, it was the play of lesser-heralded Gophers that made the difference in long stretches versus the defensive-minded Spartans.
The trio of Cullen Munson, Jaxon Nelson and Jack Perbix is listed fourth on the team’s line chart, but Gophers coach Bob Motzko will not call them the fourth line, especially after Nelson scored on a pretty feed from Perbix on Friday, and Munson played big minutes throughout.
“We don’t put numbers on lines, but when we talked to the team after the game, I said we don’t win this game without Nelson’s line tonight. Not just the goal they scored, which was huge, great play by Perbix to dig that thing out. Munson was just grinding all night and (Nelson) was terrific. They were maybe the best line on the ice both nights,” Motzko said. “That’s depth that we’ve got this year. And also it brings a spark to the rest of our team.”
In improving to 6-0-0 overall and 6-0-0-0-0-0 in the Big Ten, the Gophers used a familiar script of building a lead by dominating early. But the Spartans pushed back and created the dogfight that Motzko predicted before the team boarded an eastbound plane
The Gophers dominated the first 20 minutes, but only emerged with a one-goal lead. Meyers opened the scoring early as the road team had an 8-0 lead in shots at one point. Nelson doubled the lead after a pretty cross-ice pass by Perbix. But less than 20 seconds later, the Spartans got on the board when Kyle Haskins got loose in front of the Minnesota net and flipped a puck past LaFontaine.
The Spartans, who are the best faceoff team in the country, dominated in the circle, with an 18-5 lead in faceoffs in the opening period, and frustrated the Gophers there all night. They tied the game at 2-2 in the second on a shot through traffic that eluded LaFontaine. But notably, the Gophers didn’t panic, even as the goalie critiqued his own play.
“If that’s his off night, we’ll take it because he still played unbelievable, holding them to two goals,” said Reedy of LaFontaine, who has played every minute of a season in which the Gophers have yet to trail. “They put on some pressure tonight, so coming out with two goals against is still a great showing. He made some huge saves, especially at then end.”
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The Spartans cranked up their physical play and their defensive disruptions, taking away many of the Gophers’ passing lanes in the middle period. But the Gophers power play clicked late in the second to re-take the lead. Reedy won a faceoff to the left of Spartans goalie Drew DeRidder, pushing the puck back to defenseman Jackson LaCombe at the blue line. LaCombe sent the puck to the net where Reedy deflected it low, past the goalie. It was Reedy’s team-leading fifth goal of the year.
“Reedy has one of the quickest releases of all time...I have a tough time stopping him in practice. He makes my life a living hell,” said LaFontaine, who finished with 31 saves. “He’s just a strong, strong kid...just wide, thick and he’s really strong on pucks. His bread and butter is in front of the net.”
In the final minute, with DeRidder on the bench, the Spartans forced LaFontaine to hold the door shut, then got the puck out of the zone where Reedy flipped to Sampo Ranta and the Finn hit an empty net to seal the game. DeRidder finished with 32 saves for the Spartans (2-3-1, 1-3-0-1-0-0).
"I thought our forward were doing some things agsint...as good a defense as you're going to see in the country," Spartans coach Danton Cole said, in praise of the Gophers, and of his own forwards' work against them. "Those six guys back there on Minnesota can skate and make plays and they're elite defenders, and we did a lot of good things."
The Gophers killed post Michigan State power plays in the game, improving to a perfect 15-for-15 on the penalty kill this season.
Click here for a postgame recap from Jess Myers.
Michigan State 1-1-0—2
First period — 1. MIN, Ben Meyers 3 (Bryce Brodzinski), 5:03; 2. MIN, Jaxon Nelson 1 (Jack Perbix), 15:27; 3. MSU, Kyle Haskins 1 (Nico Muller, Mitchell Lewandowski), 15:46. Penalties — Charlie Combs, MSU (hooking), 19:56.
Second period — 4. MSU, Dennis Cesana 1 (Josh Nodler, Combs), 3:50; 5, MIN Scott Reedy 5 (Jackson LaCombe), 14:14, (pp). Penalties — Bench (served by Combs), MSU (too many men), 7:06; Brodzinski, MIN (slashing), 7:59; Muller, MSU (tripping), 14:10; Sammy Walker, MIN (holding), 19:27.
Third period — 6. MIN, Sampo Ranta 3 (Reedy), 19:49. Penalties — None.
Shots on goal — MIN 15-14-7—36; MSU 7-15-11—33. Goalies — Jack LaFontaine, MIN (33 shots-31 saves); Drew DeRidder, MSU (36-32). Power plays — MIN 1-of-3; MSU 0-of-2. Referees — Ian McCambridge, Barry Pochmara. Linesmen — Nick Bet, Pat Richardson. Att. — NA.