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Hockey Preview: #17 Minnesota Golden Gophers

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After a week off the Spartans hockey team returns to action welcoming the Minnesota Golden Gophers to town

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Four games is all that is left for the 2015-16 Michigan State Spartans' hockey team in the regular season. All four will be played at the home, beginning with a series against the Minnesota Golden Gophers who are seeking a perfect finish to their season to stay firmly on the NCAA Tournament bubble. These two teams met in Minneapolis back in January with the Gophers sweeping the Spartans 5-2, 3-1. Since that series the Spartans have gone 4-3-1, including a sweep in their last series two weekends ago over the Wisconsin Badgers.

The Spartans have played better to get these results, but outside of a win against Michigan at Joe Louis Arena in their best game of the season, they have feasted on the other teams in the bottom of the league table with them. Minnesota will provide a test for the Spartans to know where they are at, as they prepare to make a run at the B1G Tournament Title as their sole shot at reaching the NCAA Tournament. Seeding won't really matter for the Spartans, as they are practically locked into a 4 or 5 seed game against Ohio State. So what to watch for over the next two weekends is improvement in the power play, defensive zone coverage and the transition game.

Minnesota will not make it easy for the Spartans to improve in those three categories this weekend. The Gophers are a much quicker team than the Spartans and will likely cause the Spartans to play conservative in the transition game, afraid of chances going the other way. The Gophers do not have a great penalty kill (44th in the country) but they also are in the top 15 teams in the country for staying out of the box. The Spartans may be able to have success in the power play, but it is likely they will be given rare chances to play with a man advantage.

With the Gophers not taking many penalties, and playing at  a pace that will likely hem the Spartans into their own zone for long stretches of time the Spartans defensive zone coverage will be put to the test. Look for responsible forwards such as Joe Cox, and Michael Ferrantino to be counted on. Also, Travis Walsh and his shot blocking prowess will be crucial to any success. Of course Jake Hildebrand between the pipes will as always be the key to any possible victory for the Spartans.

Three Gophers stand out as the toughest pressure point on the Spartans defense. Hudson Fasching (19G, 15A), Justin Kloos (14G, 19A), and Leon Bristedt (16G, 15A) lead the Gophers in scoring and each has at least six more points and more goals than the Spartans leading scorer Mackenzie MacEachern. The talent disparity in pure hockey skill is vast between these two teams, and when the Spartans have had success against Minnesota it has mostly been due to low scoring games forced by Hildebrand.

Taking a look at the stats

Michigan State Spartans (9-20-3) Stat (National Rank) #17 Minnesota Golden Gophers (17-4)
2.41 (43) Team Offense 3.32 (11)
3.41 (50) Team Defense 2.87 (33)
18-of-127 14.17% (45) Power Play % 21-of-109 19.27% (20)
100-of-118 84.7% (18) Penalty Kill % 86-of-107 80.4% (44)
46.9% (43) Corsi For 51.8% (26)
45.6% (44) Corsi For Close 52.5% (20)
5 NHL Draft Picks 12

3 Keys For Spartan Success

  1. Play with no worries- A loss to Michigan State would likely kill any chance that Minnesota has at an at-large NCAA Tournament berth. Michigan State's season already relies on the B1G Tournament so while they want to work on certain things these past two weekends, why not just let it all hang out and try that toe drag you aren't sure will work? Maybe play a little aggressive on the Gophers' defensemen at the point looking to spring odd-man rushes. Basically, you cannot kill what is already dead guys so have some fun playing some puck.
  2. Jake Hildebrand- Obvious statement is obvious but I would not be genuine if this isn't included.
  3. Depth Scoring- The Gophers top lines will likely be able to shut down the top six forwards for the Spartans. If the Spartans are able to win a game this weekend if will likely be in a game where players like Matt DeBlouw are scoring goals.
Quotable
Well, it had been playing out perfectly until this past summer. There were actually three (departures) that really made an impact for us. … Now you’re faced with a decision — do you bring players in based on who’s left. And now that’s not a one-year decision. That’s a four-year decision. Or do you bite the bullet. And I’m just not a short-term thinker. So to me it was, you bite the bullet. So things have kind of played out as I anticipated up front. But you’re talking about two to three players on the back end that would have added depth, that would have added a different dynamic, that would have added to the skill set, the experience level. So the guys we have here now, they’ve been asked to play way more minutes than was probably planned. They’re asked to play against different levels of players than they were kind of ready for. And they’re battling every day. We’ve been limited to what we can do with that

That is Tom anastos' response to a question regarding his plan for recruiting classes in an enlightening Q&A with Graham Couch. Get used to is guys, Tom Anastos will be back next season regardless of teeth gnashing. Mark Hollis made an off-the-map hire and he plans on rising this one out a little further.

Game Info

Time

7:05 PM both nights

TV

Friday: Fox Sports Detroit

Saturday:N/A

Streaming on BTN2Go

Radio Spartan Sports Network

Prediction

I'll say that MSU forces a shootout one night this weekend (goes as a tie nationally) and loses the other night in a game that is not close.

Around the B1G

Ohio State will travel to face #6 Michigan on Friday before the Wolverines hit the road to Ohio for the series finale on Sunday. Wisconsin plays hose to #14 Penn State.