EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Save for three lopsided losses in series-opening games, Minnesota Gophers coach Bob Motzko was generally satisfied with his team’s play heading into 2020. So this was no way to start the new year.
Michigan State blitzed the Gophers right from the start in Friday’s series opener, taking a commanding lead in the opening period, stifling the Gophers offense much of the night and cruising to a 4-1 win at Munn Ice Arena.
It marked the first four-game winning streak by the Spartans in this rivalry, which dates back to 1950. The lone offensive highlight for the Gophers (7-10-4 overall, 2-5-4-3 Big Ten) came during one of their half-dozen third period power plays, when freshman defenseman Jackson LaCombe got his first collegiate goal.
For the Spartans (11-9-1, 7-3-1-0), top-liners Mitch Lewandowski and Patrick Khodorenko each got a goal and an assist as they jumped out to a 3-0 first period lead, scoring their first two goals less than 30 seconds apart.
“Michigan State kicked our butt, and it was from the start. They had much more snarl in their game tonight, and it was physical,” Motzko said. “ We needed to survive and were kind of doing OK. We took the bad penalty, they score, (24) seconds later we’re down 2-0 and we’re chasing the game the rest of the way.”
Jack LaFontaine got the start in goal for Minnesota, his fifth consecutive, but lasted just 20 minutes. LaFontaine fell to 4-6-3 as the goalie of record with six saves on nine first period shots. Jared Moe finished the game, stopping 14 of the 15 shots he faced in the final two periods.
The Gophers penalty kill, which entered the weekend atop the Big Ten statistically, got an early test and an early look at the Spartans’ top line, which is among the most feared in college hockey. Quick passing left Lewandowski all alone at the top of the crease in front of LaFontaine after a feed from Khodorenko, and just like that Michigan State had a 1-0 lead, to the delight of the sellout crowd.
They doubled it just 24 seconds later on a Gianluca Esteves’ goal, which was his second of the season. The Gophers needed a dozen minutes just to register a shot on goal. They were held without a shot on their first power play of the game late in the first, and gave up a 2-on-1 break just as the Spartans returned to full strength. This time it was Lewandowski feeding Khodorenko, who scored his team-leading 11th to make it 3-0.
LaFontaine started the second period on the bench, with Moe getting minutes in goal for the first time since a 3-2 loss to North Dakota on Nov. 29. The Gophers did not have Jaxon Nelson available for the first time this season, after the freshman forward missed the trip to stay home and continue battling an illness.
“I was excited to get back in there. It’s a tough situation to see the ice again, having to go in cold, but I thought I managed it well. One hiccup there,” Moe said, tipping his hat to the Spartans. “They were good. They’ve got a lot of skill up front there and some future NHL guys, so the more we can do to shut them down, the better.”
LaCombe, who turned 19 on Thursday, finally ruined John Lethemon’s bid for a shutout in the latter half of the third period, scoring a power play goal.
“It was definitely an exciting feeling. It’s tough not getting the job done tonight, but this for sure feels good,” LaCombe said. “We got a little momentum there, but I think we can finish on some of those power plays. We’ve got to be much stronger coming out tomorrow.”
Lethemon finished with 25 saves, including 18 in the third period when the Gophers had a trio of 5-on-3 power plays
“They had 19 shots in the third period and that’s something for them to build on,” said Spartans coach Danton Cole, who coached international teams for USA Hockey for seven seasons previously. “I remember the last time I saw this many 5-on-3s. We were in Russia playing Russia, if that tells you anything.”
The series concludes on Saturday with a 6 p.m. CT start.
Michigan State 3-1-0—4
First period — 1. MSU, Mitchell Ledandowski 7 (Patrick Khodorenko, Sam Saliba), 7:23, (pp). 2. MSU, Gianluca Esteves 2 (Tommy Apap), 7:47. 3. MSU, Khodorenko 11 (Lewandowski), Penalties — Joey Marooney, MIN (holding), 6:27; Butrus Ghafari, MSU (holding the stick), 16:25.
Second period — 4. Saliba 7 (Jerad Rosburg, Khodorenko), 10:57. Penalties -- Tyler Nanne, MIN (tripping), 2:16; Adam Goodsir, MSU (interference), 4:39; Bryce Brodzinski, MIN (roughing), 18:25.
Third period — 5. MIN, Jackson LaCombe 1 (Sammy Walker, Blake McLaughlin), 13:38, (pp). Penalties — Christian Krygier, MSU (slashing), 3:18; Krygier, MSU (roughing), 3:18; Marooney, MIN (slashing), 3:18; Lewandowski, MSU (hooking), 9:37; Dennis Cesana, MSU (cross checking), 10:53; Bench (served by Lewandowski), MSU (too many men), 11:48; Logan Lambdin, MSU (boarding), 17:05; Jagger Joshua, MSU (tripping), 17:19.
Shots on goal — MIN 3-4-19—26; MSU 9-9-6-24. Goalies — Jack LaFontaine, MIN (9 shots-6 saves); Jared Moe, MIN (15-14) John Lethemon, MSU (26-25). Power plays — MIN 1-of-8; MSU 1-of-3. Referees — Brian Aaron, Steve McInchak. Linesmen — Nick Bet, Justin Cornell. Att. — 6,346.