Sometimes you come to class because you forgot you had a test and still get every question right. And sometimes you study for a week just to get a pass.
After a weekend that took their highest marks of the season, the Gophers handed what their coach called a B-plus attempt in their series opener against Michigan State, with some room for improvement.
The Gophers batted to a three-goal lead and won 4-2 at the 3M Arena in Mariucci on Friday, looking very good for long stretches, but with just enough pause to let Coach Bob Motzko talk about minor fixes that were necessary with only three regular season games remaining.
Loved us tonight. We didn’t string it all together, but we strung it together enough, said Motzko, who promised to take a closer look at the video. It was a good B-plus game. Good stretching exercises.
Goals from Ben Meyers, Jackson LaCombe, Brannon McManus and Sampo Ranta spurred the Gophers, who improved to 18-5-0 overall and 14-5-0 in the Big Ten and held their place at the top of the conference with a .737 Big Ten winning percentage. Goalkeeper Jack LaFontaine, who hit consecutive shutouts, wasn’t perfect but was close enough with 19 saves in the win.
With the scheduled series for the upcoming weekend at Penn State canceled and the Gophers unable to play 24 conference games, the league title is expected to be determined by the conference winning percentage, although no official announcement has been made. Wisconsin, which rallied on Friday to beat Notre Dame, stayed in second place with a win rate of 0.684.
Perhaps the bright spot was the continued chemistry between McManus and Ranta, who are the wingers on the teams’ top line, with Scott Reedy in the middle. Ranta netted a McManus goal in the second period, and the fourth goal came in the third when McManus forced a turnover on Michigan State’s blue line, giving him and Ranta a rare 2-to-0 break to the net. Spartans made. There, McManus passed the lock to Ranta, who punched past Michigan state goalkeeper Drew DeRidder for his team-leading 15th goal of the season.
It’s a lot of fun, said Ranta. That doesn’t happen very often. I can’t remember the last time I had a 2-for-0 in a game, but Brannon played great on the blue line and then made a great pass too. Pretty easy job for me to enter that.
The story leading up to this meeting, the first between these teams since late November in East Lansing, Michigan, was DeRidder and his tendency to make three dozen or more saves for the Spartans, who haven’t scored as many goals as they’d hoped. this season. While DeRidder was sharp all over, two of the first three Gophers goals were on soft shots that seemed to fool the goalkeeper, like a batter looking for a fastball to be crossed by a substitution.
Meyers, left alone for Spartans’ net a little too long, slid a low shot past DeRidder for the early 1-0 lead. With the Gophers leading 2-0 in the second, McManus looked like he’d played a shot wrong, but the slow-moving puck still trickled down the goal line for the eventual game winner.
I think I hit the defender’s stick more than I got the puck and probably screwed a little bit with the keepers spirit, said McManus, who has five points in the past three games. I’ll take it.
The most blatant hiccups for the Gophers at night came on a second period power play, when sales on the blue line launched a short breakaway through Spartan’s center Tommy Apap. The goal broke LaFontaines’ shutout streak just after 154 minutes.
With the Gophers in full control in the second half of the final period, the Spartans got a second shot past LaFontaine as Josh Nodler’s wrist shot proved elusive.
The Spartans (7-12-2, 5-11-1) received 34 rescues from DeRidder.
Good fight. I thought our boys were doing a lot of things right, said Spartans coach Danton Cole. We played really hard and stayed with it and found ourselves down but kept fighting.
The series will close on Saturday with a face-off at 5 p.m.
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