Silent night in East Lansing as Gophers road slate opens strong
In an eerily deserted college town, the Minnesota Gophers made sure that Michigan State's mostly-empty arena was a quiet place too, opening up an early lead and giving the Spartans little signs of hope. The Gophers improved to 5-0-0 via their first road win of the season.
It is unusually quiet in East Lansing, Mich., these days, as the pandemic has the normally hopping college town locked down. And it was especially quiet in a mostly-empty Munn Ice Arena on Thursday, Dec. 3, thanks to the Minnesota Gophers.
After a perfect start in a quartet of home games, the first experiment to test the Gophers’ worthiness away from home was a smashing success. They scored early, they were smothering on the penalty kill, and they got top-notch goaltending once again, stepping on Michigan State early and keeping the Spartans down in a 3-1 win.
The Gophers (5-0-0 overall, 5-0-0-0-0-0 Big Ten) got goals from Ben Meyers, Sampo Ranta and Scott Reedy to build a three-goal lead, and Jack LaFontine saw his shutout streak end after more than 143 clean minutes, but had 23 saves to keep his season record perfect.
“It’s weird. This is a college town, and it’s empty. There literally is not a soul around,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said, noting that they are in a mostly-empty hotel, and saw almost nobody either on their walk to the rink, or once they got inside.
And any hopes the Spartans (2-2-1, 1-2-0-1-0-0) had of making some noise were dashed early. If Motzko could have scripted a perfect first 20 minutes for their first road game, it probably would have looked something like what they did in the first period at an empty Munn Ice Arena. Meyers scored on the game’s first power play on a pretty glove-side shot. The shots were already getting lopsided by the time Ranta won a battle at the top of the crease with Spartans defenseman Tommy Miller, slipping the puck between Michigan State goalie Drew DeRidder’s pads for a two-goal lead. The goal came after Gophers defenseman Robbie Stucker, playing in his first game of the season, got the puck to the net.
“It was a good shot by Stucker from the point and I was battling in front of the goalie and a good bounce, I got my stick on it and it went in,” Ranta said.
Stucker, the lanky junior defender who starred at St. Thomas Academy, finished with two assists after being listed as “unavailable” for the Gophers’ first four games, for reasons the school cannot disclose. During a pandemic, many have assumed the absence was related to COVID-19.
“It’s good to have him back. He shoots the puck well and had a great game,” Ranta said of Stucker, who is known for a booming shot from the blue line. “It’s his first game back and he’s only going to get better.”
Perhaps the best news for the Gophers defense early was Michigan State’s eight first period shots, which got LaFontaine’s blood pumping and got his head into the game. With a few quiet first periods on his resume this season, LaFontaine has admitted that not seeing the puck much early in a game is an additional challenge.
After the Gophers killed a penalty early in the second. Reedy, who has picked up where he left off as a senior, after leading the team in goals a year ago, scored his team-leading fourth of the season on an early second period power play. That was all the offense, but the Gophers defense and special teams made the rest of the difference, not only with the pair of power play goals, but with a penalty kill that remains untainted on the season.
“You start with LaFontaine, and he’s been a rock for us, and then you look at what’s returning,” Motzko said, praising the veterans for making the penalty kill click. “We start off with Meyers and (Jaxon) Nelson and the second half last year they were our top group coming over the boards on the penalty kill, and I think they’re fantastic together.”
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Nelson had a second period breakaway, but was thwarted by DeRidder, who finished with 31 saves. LaFontaine’s bid for a second consecutive shutout was ruined by Spartans defenseman Cole Krygier late in the third, when his shot from the point hit traffic on the way to the net and eluded the goalie.
“Minnesota played a really good game and got us back on our heels. I didn’t think we were moving or doing very much right early on,” Spartans coach Danton Cole said. “They definitely took advantage of that and we’re going to have to do some things a heck of a lot better.”
The series concludes at 7 p.m. Friday night.
Click here for a postgame wrap-up from Jess Myers.
Michigan State 0-0-1—1
First period — 1. MIN, Ben Meyers 2 (Ryan Johnson), 7:21, (pp); 2. MIN, Sampo Ranta 2 (Robbie Stucker, Scott Reedy), 8:58. Penalties — Christian Krygier, MSU (high sticking), 5:28, Johnson, MIN (hooking), 12:53.
Second period — 3. MIN, Reedy 4 (Sammy Walker, Stucker), 4:09, (pp). Penalties — Bench (served by Mason Nevers), MIN (too many men), 0:52; Aiden Gallacher, MSU (tripping), 3:11; Jack Perbix, MIN (interference), 11:05; Dennis Cesana, MSU (hooking), 11:52; Jagger Joshua, MSU (boarding), 13:59.
Third period — 4. MSU, Cole Krygier 1 (Josh Nodler, Charlie Combs), 16:18. Penalties — Mitchell Lewandowski, MSU (goaltender interference), 2:00; Brody Stevens, MSU (slashing), 10:04; Tommy Miller, MSU (boarding), 10:39; Reedy, MIN (roughing), 11:16.
Shots on goal — MIN 16-11-7—34; MSU 8-5-11—24. Goalies — Jack LaFontine, MIN (24 shots-23 saves); Drew DeRidder, MSU (34-31). Power plays — MIN 2-of-7; MSU 0-of-4. Referees — Ian McCambridge, Barry Pochmara. Linesmen — Nick Bet, Pat Richardson. Att. — 100.