MINNEAPOLIS -- Sometimes you show up to class, having forgotten you had a test, and still get every question right. And sometimes you study for a week just to produce a passing grade.
Coming off a weekend that produced their highest marks of the season, the Minnesota Gophers turned in what their coach called a “B+” effort in their series opener versus Michigan State -- a good grade to be sure, with some room for improvement.
The Gophers blasted out to a three-goal lead and won 4-2 on Friday, looking very good for long stretches, but with just enough momentary lapses to have coach Bob Motzko talking about small fixes needed with just three regular season games remaining.
“I liked us in stretches tonight. We didn’t string it all together, but we strung enough together,” Motzko said, pledging to take a close look at the video. “It was a good B+ game. Good stretches.”
Goals from Ben Meyers, Jackson LaCombe, Brannon McManus and Sampo Ranta spurred the Gophers improving to 18-5-0 overall and 14-5-0 in the Big Ten, and maintaining their place atop the conference standings with a .737 Big Ten winning percentage. Goalie Jack LaFontaine, who was coming off back-to-back shutouts, was not perfect, but was close enough with 19 saves in the win.
With next weekend’s scheduled series at Penn State now cancelled and the Gophers unable to play 24 conference games, it is expected that the league title will be determined by conference winning percentage, although no official announcement has been made. Wisconsin, which rallied to beat Notre Dame on Friday, stayed in second place with a .684 conference winning percentage.
Perhaps the bright spot was the on-going chemistry between McManus and Ranta, who are the wingers on the team’s top line, with Scott Reedy at center. Ranta set up a McManus goal in the second period, and the fourth goal came in the third when McManus forced a turnover at the Michigan State blue line, springing him and Ranta on a rare 2-on-0 break to the Spartans net. There McManus passed across the slot to Ranta, who blasted a slap shot past Michigan State goalie Drew DeRidder for his team-leading 15th goal of the season.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Ranta said. “That doesn’t happen too often. I can’t remember the last time I had a 2-on-0 in a game but Brannon made a great play at the blue line and then he made a great pass too. Pretty easy job for me to put that in.”
The story leading up to this meeting -- the first between these teams since late November in East Lansing, Mich. -- was DeRidder and his propensity for making three dozen or more saves a game for the Spartans, who have not scored as many goals as they have hoped this season. While DeRidder was certainly sharp throughout, two of the first three Gophers goals were on soft shots that seemed to fool the goalie, like a batter looking for a fastball that gets crossed up by a changeup.
Meyers, left alone in front of the Spartans net for just a bit too long, slipped a low shot past DeRidder for the early 1-0 lead. With the Gophers up 2-0 in the second, McManus looked like he mis-played a shot, but the slow-moving puck still trickled over the goal line for the eventual game-winner.
“I think I hit the defenseman’s stick more than I got the puck and probably screwed with the goalie’s mind a little bit,” said McManus, who now has five points in the past three games. “I’ll take it.”
The night’s most glaring hiccup for the Gophers came on a second period power play, when a turnover at the blue line launched a short-handed breakaway by Spartans center Tommy Apap. The goal snapped LaFontaine’s shutout streak just shy of 154 minutes.
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With the Gophers in complete control in the latter half of the final period, the Spartans got a second shot past LaFontaine, as former Fargo Force standout Josh Nodler’s wrist shot proved elusive.
The Spartans (7-12-2, 5-11-1) got 34 saves from DeRidder in the loss.
“Good battle. I thought our guys did an awful lot of things right,” Spartans coach Danton Cole said. “We played real hard and stuck with it and found ourselves down, but kept battling.”
The series concludes on Saturday with a 5 p.m. CT opening faceoff.
View Jess Myers' postgame comments here.
Michigan State 0-1-1—2
First period — 1. MIN, Ben Meyers 10 (Cullen Munson, Jackson LaCombe), 16:40. 2. MIN, LaCombe 4 (Brannon McManus, Matt Staudacher), 19:12. Penalties — Staudacher, MIN (elbowing), 9:48.
Second period — 3. MIN, McManus 8 (Sampo Ranta), 12:45. 4. MSU, Tommy Apap 5 (unassisted), 14:42, (sh). Penalties — Brody Stevens, MSU (tripping), 1:51; Meyers, MIN (slashing), 5:46; Mitchell Lewandowski, MSU (tripping), 14:24; Ranta, MIN (tripping), 16:46.
Third period — 5. MIN, Ranta 15 (McManus), 6:32. 6. MSU, Josh Nodler 3 (Adam Goodsir), 10:53. Penalties — Munson, MIN (cross checking), 17:16.
Shots on goal — MIN 10-13-15—38; MSU 7-6-8—21. Goalies — Jack LaFontaine, MIN (21 shots-19 saves); Drew DeRidder, MSU (38-34). Power plays — MIN 0-of-2, MSU 0-of-4. Referees — Brett Sheva, Sean Fernandez. Linesmen — Johnathan Morrison, Chad Roethlisberger. Att. — NA.