Breaking down No. 15 Michigan State at No. 2 Minnesota: players to watch, predictions and more


Sarah Smith

Jagger Joshua and Karsen Dorwart celebrate after Joshua’s first goal during Michigan State’s tie with No. 5 Penn State on January 14, 2023. Photo Credit: Sarah Smith/WDBM

Jacob Stinson, Hockey Beat Reporter

MINNEAPOLIS — After taking four of six points against Penn State, Michigan State has proven that it can hang with the best teams in the Big Ten. However, the Spartans get their biggest test yet. Following a bye week, they take on Minnesota, the No. 2 team in the USCHO poll and one of the premier teams in college hockey.

Puck drop is set for 8 p.m. ET Friday from 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis. Saturday’s rematch will begin at 5 p.m. ET.

The Golden Gophers traveled to East Lansing for a series in early December, and they won two lopsided games, 5-0 and 6-3. That extended Minnesota’s win streak over the Spartans to 11, dating back to the 2019-20 season. Only four current Spartans — including senior Nicolas Müller — were on that team.

“I remember freshman year,” Müller said, “it was a little bit more evened-out talent, I think…Our team has been not really good the last couple of years, but I think this year we have a pretty good group.”

The Golden Gophers are led by one of the most dangerous lines in all of college hockey, featuring Logan Cooley, Matthew Knies and Jimmy Snuggerud. In last weekend’s split with Michigan, the trio combined for three goals and four assists.

On the other end, junior Brock Faber and senior Jackson LaCombe anchor the defense. Faber is a premier shutdown defenseman, the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and the team captain. LaCombe is an excellent playmaker with 25 points in 26 games. Faber, LaCombe and Knies all were nominated for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, given to the best overall player in college hockey.

“Obviously they’re a very good team,” Michigan State captain Miroslav Mucha said. “They’re a top team in the country, so we’ve got to treat it that way…They have a lot of skill on their team. They play with a ton of pace.”

So what will it take for Michigan State to break the losing streak? How does this series impact the playoffs? Here’s the breakdown:

What does this series mean for the postseason?

For Minnesota: The Gophers have a commanding lead on the Big Ten. Mathematically speaking, they can finish as low as sixth, but let’s be realistic. They have a 10-point lead on the teams in second place. They’re 12-3-1 in the conference. They have NHL prospects up and down the roster. Winning this weekend only increases the odds that Minnesota secures a bye in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.

We’re also at the point in the season where PairWise rankings are starting to matter. In short, PairWise is an advanced metric that combines record, strength of schedule and head-to-head records to rank every team in college hockey. The NCAA gives six automatic bids to the winner of each conference tournament. After that, the 10 remaining spots go to the schools with the highest PairWise rating.

Right now, Minnesota has the No. 1 spot. If the Gophers finish there and win the Big Ten tournament, then they would get the top overall seed, giving them the easiest path back to the Frozen Four.

For Michigan State: On the other hand, Michigan State’s fate is very much in limbo. Realistically, the Spartans can finish anywhere between third and sixth in the Big Ten. If they finish fourth or better, however, then Munn Ice Arena will host postseason hockey for the first time since Big Ten hockey began in 2013-14.

For the first time in a long time, MSU also has reason to pay attention to the PairWise rankings. The Spartans sit at No. 13 right now, putting them on the bubble. If they don’t win the conference tournament, then they will need an at-large bid to make it. Pulling off an upset against  the top team would give a big boost to Michigan State’s tournament odds.

What’s one storyline from each team to pay attention to?

For Minnesota: Michigan State coach Adam Nightingale pointed to Minnesota’s defense as a key reason why his team struggled in the first series. However, last weekend against Michigan, the Gophers allowed eight goals over two games, which is tied for the most they’ve allowed this season. While it shouldn’t be much reason to panic — it was Michigan, after all — the Gophers will need to tighten up on defense to be successful.

For Michigan State: Junior defenseman Nash Nienhuis has been out of the lineup since he sustained an injury against Ferris State on Dec. 27. With an extra week’s worth of rest for the team, there’s a chance he could come back this weekend. Nightingale hasn’t given confirmation on Nienhuis’ status, but getting back one of the team’s best two-way players would give a big boost to the defense. He has 13 points this season, which, despite missing five games, is the most by any MSU defenseman.

Who’s one player to watch, beyond the obvious stars?

For Minnesota: Freshman defenseman Ryan Chesley has been an underrated part of the Gophers’ blue line. While he gets overshadowed by Faber and LaCombe, Chesley is a strong two-way player. He’s both a Washington Capitals prospect and represented the United States in the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship. His season numbers don’t jump off the page, but he’s got two assists in his last three games, and he’s starting to find his footing on the ice.

For Michigan State: It’s worth paying attention to junior Erik Middendorf. He was recently moved up to the second line with Müller and Jeremy Davidson, and he’s looked solid in that role. He started the comeback with a goal in the first game against Penn State, and he’s worked his way back onto the power play as well. He’ll be getting more opportunities, so expect Middendorf to make more of an impact on the score sheet.

Impact staff predictions

Stinson: Minnesota sweeps. Michigan State played well against Penn State, but the Gophers are on a different level. The Spartans simply don’t have the personnel to match up with Minnesota. In order to win, MSU will need to play almost entirely mistake-free, and I don’t think that’s realistic.

Jacob Phillips, Hockey Beat Reporter: At best, expect a split. Michigan State looked much better hosting Penn State than they did before the semester began. Couple that with a few Gopher missteps over the last few weeks, and the Spartans could take one win back to East Lansing.

Ryan Radosevich, Hockey Beat Reporter: Both teams split. It will be a hard-fought series but MSU will eke out a win and earn the split they desperately need if they want to host a Big Ten tournament series. When these two teams matched up in December, Minnesota seemed to want it more. They were faster and played a nearly perfect series. That’s exactly what MSU has to do if they want to earn a split.