After a series sweep at the hands of the Michigan Wolverines the Spartan hockey team continues league play this weekend, traveling to play against the Minnesota Golden Gophers. The Spartans last played Friday night at home and their effort brought out the most tense postgame conference in the Tom Anastos era. So little has changed since the Gophers last played the Spartans I almost mailed it in and reposted my preview from early December. But for you, The Only Colors readers, you deserve better so lets update you on these Gophers and your Spartans.
The Gophers are still the number #1 ranked team in the nation, both in the human polls and the computers. In fact the Gophers received 44 of 50 first place votes in this weeks USCHO.com poll. The Gophers still possess the 2nd best offense in the nation, now at 3.83 goals per game instead of the 4.14 they were averaging in December. The Gophers have not lost a game since November 24th, going 9-0-3 in that stretch. So the Spartans who have gone 3-4-2 since they played the Gophers are going to have to play their best hockey of the season to come home with any points. Outside of a game against Michigan at the GLI, the Spartans' best efforts were probably the series against the Gophers, earning a shootout victory and one goal loss.
Spartan Hockey ties top ranked Gophers, win shootout. (via MSUSpartanAthletics)
Minnesota Golden Gophers 18-2-4 (7-0-1 B1G)
Time/TV: 9:00 P.M. Friday on BTN, 8:00 P.M Saturday Fox Sports Plus
The Gophers are still led in scoring by junior Sam Warning. He has come on as a goal scorer, now with 10 goals on the season, good for second best on the squad to Seth Ambroz. Last weekend super freshman Hudson Fasching scored a goal in each of the Gophers games, as did senior Nate Condon. Sophomore defenseman Mike Reilly continues to contribute offensivly as he is 5th on the team in points with 8 goals and 20 points.
What is always a big story line for Spartan trips out to Minnesota is their ability to adjust to the larger ice surface the Gophers play on. Unlike Munn Arena, a surface that measures 200 feet x 85 feet, Mariucci Arena measures 200x100. In the past the Spartans have practiced at the Summit Ice Arena (which has an olympic size sheet) to prepare for this trip. The bigger ice surface is most difficult for the defenseman to adjust to. Your gap control is thrown off as forwards have extra space along the boards to make plays and defenseman can get too far spread out and susceptible to getting beat on passes down the middle of the ice. The best way to play is space out at each sides faceoff dot and use that as a guidance where to line up defensively. Another big adjustment is for the Spartans to continue to progress on their penalty kill. There is more space for the power play to create in the zone and playing with discipline is of the utmost importance this weekend.
Three Keys To MSU Success
- Power Play- The Spartan power play scored all three goals for the Spartans last weekend and will have to be great this weekend to gain an advantage. The Gophers have a middle of the road penalty kill, as they are successful killing penalties only 83.3% of the time. While the power play has not been great for MSU this season, it was encouraging to see how they crashed the net last weekend and the increased space to operate should be useful for the Spartans.
- Defenseman- They were inexcusably bad this past weekend. Way too many turnovers, too many bad pinches leading to odd man rushes and an inability to clear the puck from danger. This has been a unit that has been able to go unnoticed, because of a combination of having Jake Hildebrand save them and having the fan base focus on the offensive struggles of this team. This unit will be helped by the return of John Draeger, who played limited minutes last week returning from injury. Draeger, a Minnesota native, will need to have a Gary Harris in Indiana type of weekend.
- Jake Hildebrand- Yes this is a lay-up and an obvious key to MSU success but it has to be stated. The Spartans were absolutely overwhelmed in shots against Minnesota last time and Hildebrand will see tons of shots this weekend. The December series really started the turn-around for Hildebrand and he hasn't relinquished the net since. If the Spartans win a game this weekend, there is an 80% chance Hildebrand is the number one star of the game.
Analysis- Under Tom Anastos effort has never been an issue, and by looking at the shot blocking numbers since his arrival it is clear the players put it all on the line for him. I think you will see an energetic and pumped up Spartan team this weekend. Unfortunately the Gophers have just too much talent and have been buzzsawing every team outside of Minnesota Duluth this season. The Spartans may sneak out with a point if they force another shootout but a sweep is the most likely outcome.
Around The B1G: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State have all played 8 league games. Minnesota is in 1st place with 22 points, then Wisconsin at 15. Michigan moved into 3rd last weekend and has 12 points in 6 games played, followed by Michigan State with 10 points. Ohio State has 7 points and Penn State has 0 points but has also only played 6 games. The top two teams get a bye in the B1G tournament so the race for 2nd place begins this weekend (assuming Minnesota holds onto their huge lead). It is all league games this weekend as the Badgers travel to Ann Arbor for a pair of games (lead-in game to MSU-Minnesota on BTN Frozen Friday) and Penn State travels to Ohio State.