2021 Big Ten Hockey Tournament
Quarterfinal Game 2
3 p.m. CT, Sunday, March 14
No. 7 Michigan State vs. No. 2 Minnesota
Spartans (5-16-1, .250 Big Ten, 7-17-2 overall)
Gophers (16-6-0, .727, 20-6-0)
From the front windows of Compton Family Ice Arena, one massive parking lot away from Notre Dame’s famed football stadium, you can almost see the iconic “Touchdown Jesus” mosaic that is a landmark of this place most known for exploits on the gridiron.
Before heading to Notre Dame for the Sunday afternoon playoff opener, it was perhaps appropriate for Minnesota Gophers coach Bob Motzko to be thinking in football terms when scouting his opponent.
“They’ve had a tough stretch, but it’s over. They’re going to get a fresh set of downs now,” Motzko said of Michigan State, which the Gophers beat four times in the regular season. “They’ve got a chance to remedy some things into the playoffs...They’re a big strong team, they’re well-coached their goaltender (Drew) DeRidder has been one of the best in the conference.”
In fact, just a few weeks ago the Gophers chased DeRidder from the net in a 5-1 victory in Minneapolis. That was one of a NCAA-best 20 wins in the regular season, but the Gophers did not get a banner to show for that effort, and head to the next phase of this most unique season with unfinished business.
Well-assured that they will be in the NCAA tournament in a few weeks, the conference playoffs are a different atmosphere for the Gophers. They played three playoff games at home versus Notre Dame last season before college hockey shut down due to the pandemic. These Gophers have no experience playing at a neutral site in the postseason, but that is not to say they have not experienced higher-pressure hockey in the past. For many players, there is a feeling in the air in March that signals the stakes going up.
“This is the best time of year. Growing up as a kid in Minnesota this was state tournament time,” said freshman defenseman Brock Faber. “When the weather starts to warm up a bit, this is always fun. I wouldn’t say (there are) nerves, I’d say more excitement for me.”
For the Gophers to win a trophy in South Bend, the formula is pretty straightforward. Goalie Jack LaFontaine needs to keep doing the things that have him solidly in the running as the Big Ten’s top goalie, and Motzko noted that a few of the team’s more talented goal-scorers need to be heard from.
“We’ve got a guy like Ben Meyers who is maybe one of the big spark plugs in our conference, that can explode,” Motzko said. “Sammy Walker, at any moment. (Blake) McLaughlin … (Sampo) Ranta for the first time now is heading into a tournament. Ranta’s been pretty steady all year. There are not many weekends that he doesn’t have a goal.”
Like every team except Wisconsin, the Gophers will need to win three games in three nights if they want to raise the Big Ten playoff banner for just the second time (after 2015) in program history. The players who spoke to the media this week said their sole focus is Sunday, and anything past that will be dealt with as it comes.
“That’s the biggest game of the season so far. Just focusing on the next one is huge for us,” Faber said. “Focusing on Michigan State, they’re a heavy team and they’ll play physical on a smaller ice sheet that fits their game a lot better.”
There are good times ahead for Michigan State, which has an extensive remodeling and modernization project underway at Munn Ice Arena. And there have been good times in the past, as the Spartans remain the most recent Big Ten team to win a NCAA title (in 2007, under former coach Rick Comley).
- Gophers empty the tank and fill the net versus Spartans, sweeping into a 12-day break
- Passing, not perfect, grades as Gophers open Michigan State series with a win
- Drew DeRidder's high save numbers key Spartans' upset hopes vs. Gophers
The present is more challenging in East Lansing, where Cole’s teams have finished sixth or seventh in the seven-team conference in all four of his seasons at the helm of his alma mater. They made a valiant stand versus Wisconsin in the season finale, leading the Badgers with a minute to play in the second period before falling 2-1. Although the pessimist will note that the Spartans closed the regular season going 1-9-0 in their last 10 and scoring one goal, total, in their final three games.
Cole was philosophical when talking with the media prior to their fifth game versus the Gophers, quoting both Ayn Rand and Sun Tzu, and making correlations to hockey and hinting that his team may need to play a more aggressive game versus the Gophers in the playoffs.
“Even when we haven’t played well, I do like the way our guys have competed, but you can do that in a lot of ways,” he said. “If you stand at the bottom of the hill and the opposing army runs down the hill, and you just stand there and they run you over, I guess you’re competing, trying to hold your ground. But it’s not very smart, tactfully.”
Like they did in hanging close to the Badgers last weekend, the Spartans are likely to try to make things defensive, as they have averaged 1.5 goals per game this season and scored more than three just twice.