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Top-ranked in one poll, the Gophers are a study in contrasts as they visit new-look Spartans

Michigan State has a new coach, a new attitude and a familiar name in goal, but don't tell the Spartans that it's a big deal to have Minnesota -- ranked atop one national poll -- visiting this weekend. They're all about getting better, no matter the foe.

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Minnesota Gophers defenseman Ryan Johnson (23) takes the puck past Michigan State forward A.J. Hodges (10) during the first period Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022, at 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis.
Jason Wachter / The Rink Live
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MINNEAPOLIS — As if the contrast of playing hockey in the desert wasn't enough, the Minnesota Gophers seem to be all about contradictions. Last weekend at Arizona State they won a game they felt they should have lost and lost a game where they outplayed the Sun Devils for long stretches. As a result, one national poll dropped them from second to fourth while the other national poll elevated them from second to first.

Prepping for a return to Big Ten play with a series at Michigan State this weekend, Gophers coach Bob Motzko didn't analyze what it all meant very thoroughly, choosing instead to look ahead and not backwards.

“There are certain weekends when they’re over that you just put right in the garbage can. You don’t talk about it again,” Motzko said after the team’s Wednesday practice. “We put that one right in the garbage can. No more to talk about it, but it was a great trip.”

The coach and players raved about the days spent in the sun in Arizona and a Thanksgiving gathering at the home of Matthew Knies that was important for team bonding. The on-ice stuff is best forgotten. Besides, with a new coaching staff and a whole new style facing them at Michigan State this weekend, where first-year man Adam Nightingale has the Spartans ranked in the top 20 nationally and is the early favorite for Big Ten coach of the year, Motzko and his staff spent much of the week breaking down video.

I told our guys we don’t need to change who we are, we just need to keep getting better.
Michigan State head coach Adam Nightingale

“They’re going to be contenders at the end of the year,” Gophers captain Brock Faber said. “They’ve got a good coaching staff, they have a good mix of old and young and we’ve got to take them seriously and obviously improve on last weekend.”

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Nightingale came back to his alma mater from USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, where last year he coached current Gophers like Ryan Chesley, Logan Cooley and Jimmy Snuggerud. So he has some familiarity with the maroon team that will visit East Lansing on Friday and Saturday.

There is an abundance of hype surrounding the Gophers’ visit among the hungry Spartans fan base, but for his part, Nightingale says his team’s mantra of constant improvement does not change no matter the venue or the foe.

“We’re trying to keep the same mind-set. I told our guys we don’t need to change who we are, we just need to keep getting better,” Nightingale said on Tuesday. “Regardless of the outcome of last weekend or two weekends ago or whatever, our focus is always on getting better.”

Interestingly, Nightingale took a break from practice and flew to the Twin Cities on Wednesday for a brief stop at the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony in St. Paul, where former Spartans star goalie Ryan Miller was among the class of 2022. While the Spartans coach is a new face, their top goalie is a familiar name. Dylan St. Cyr is back in the Big Ten for his final season of college hockey, having stopped pucks at Notre Dame for three years, then spending last season with Quinnipiac. He was named the Big Ten’s first star of the week heading into the Minnesota series following a nonconference sweep at Miami.

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After three years at Notre Dame and one at Quinnipiac, goalie Dylan St. Cyr (37) returned to the Big Ten for his final season of hockey and saw the bulk of Michigan State's minutes in the crease during October 2022.
Contributed / MSU Athletics

Having won seven of their last eight games, St. Cyr said the Spartans are a very confident hockey team, but are not buying into the hype with the Gophers coming to visit.

“It’s just another weekend for us, honestly,” he said. “A lot of outside people are trying to weigh in and put a lot more emphasis on this weekend than others, but we’re a very process-driven team. Each weekend we focus on the next game and kind of have the same mentality no matter who we’re playing. I don’t think it’s something that we need to blow out of proportion, but obviously Minnesota is a very good team.”

READ MORE MINNESOTA GOPHERS COVERAGE:
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And why shouldn’t she? Indiana brings a 20-1 record and No. 4 national ranking into Wednesday’s game at the Barn
The Gophers (9-12 overall, 2-8 Big Ten) led only once, 2-0, on a layup by Rose Micheaux in the game’s first 16 seconds.
Trailing in the second period, the Minnesota Gophers got solid goaltending and woke up offensively to sweep their weekend series versus visiting Michigan State.
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It took only nine ticks of the clock for Minnesota Gophers rookie Logan Cooley to give his team a lead, and that was just the beginning of their dominance of the Spartans on Friday.
Junior wing who led Minnesota in scoring last season has struggled offensively at times this season
With two more players unavailable Wednesday, the Gophers had roughly half that roster max against Indiana at Williams Arena.
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Weekend details

The games at Michigan State face off at 5:30 p.m. CT on Friday and 5 p.m. CT Saturday at Munn Ice Arena, on the MSU campus. Both games will be televised by Big Ten Network with Ben Holden and Fred Pletsch calling the games.

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On radio, the Gophers can be heard on 1130 AM / 103.5 FM in the Twin Cities with Wally Shaver and Frank Mazzocco in their 11th season together describing the action.

The Gophers are 129-50-16 all-time versus the Spartans with their first series coming in January of 1950 in East Lansing – games the Gophers won 8-2 and 11-1. In more recent history, the Gophers have won their last nine consecutive head-to-head meetings with the Spartans.

Jess Myers covers college hockey, as well as outdoors, general sports and travel, for The Rink Live and the Forum Communications family of publications. He came to FCC in 2018 after three decades of covering sports as a freelancer for a variety of publications, while working full time in politics and media relations. A native of Warroad, Minn. (the real Hockeytown USA), Myers has a degree in journalism/communications from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He lives in the Twin Cities. Contact Jess via email at jrmyers@forumcomm.com, or find him on Twitter via @JessRMyers. English speaker.
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