No. 13 Gophers hold off Spartan comeback, win tight game

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Despite a two-goal night from forward Taro Hirose, Michigan State proved their own worst enemy in Thursday night’s loss to No. 13 Minnesota. The Spartans allowed two goals on their own five-minute-long power play, and the second period proved to be MSU’s downfall in a game that was statistically dominated by the Gophers.

“I think we did some things better later in the game,” head coach Danton Cole said postgame. “When we play teams in the Big Ten, you have to play where you’re getting into battles and winning battles.”

The Spartans did get off the blocks quickly, taking their only lead of the game via forward Mitchell Lewandowski. A hard pass off the back boards from defenseman Tommy Miller bounced out front and was misplayed by Minnesota goaltender Eric Schierhorn. Lewandowski waited near the right-side goal post and tapped in one of the easiest of his 15 goals this season. The freshman forward’s goal gave the Spartans a 1-0 lead six minutes and 47 seconds into the game.

This game was notable for two incredibly unusual goals, one from either side that a major impact on the game. The first was a Minnesota goal that tied the game at one, as Jack Ramsey’s long, bouncing shot from the neutral zone bounced right in front of Spartan goaltender John Lethemon, bouncing up and in. The goal completely changed the game’s momentum, and the Spartans were lucky to survive the first period tied at one.

In the second, Minnesota took control courtesy of a handful of Spartan turnovers. Following an MSU penalty on forward Jake Smith for slashing, the Gophers’ Steve Johnson wristed a shot high past Lethemon’s blocker to break the deadlock just 1:48 into the second frame.

The Gophers weren’t done there, as their use of a Spartan five-minute power play changed the game significantly. Following a game misconduct to Minnesota’s Clayton Phillips for a hit from behind to the head of MSU’s Gianluca Esteves, the Spartans got to work on a power play that had the chance to break the game in MSU’s favor.

Instead, it was Minnesota who took advantage of more careless Spartan play. A turnover in the neutral zone led to a 2-on-1 break for Minnesota’s Brent Gates, who slid the puck to captain Tyler Sheehy to beat Lethemon glove-side. A two-goal lead was stretched to three just over a minute later, as an arched pass out of the Gopher zone by Sheehy found its way to forward Tommy Novak, who scored on the penalty-kill breakaway to make it 4-1. Three goals in five minutes and seven seconds changed the course of the game, and made it a game of catch-up for Cole’s team.

Hirose’s two goals cut the Minnesota lead to 4-3, and the first was as much of a hustle play as there is in hockey. On a five-minute penalty kill due to a Jerad Rosburg penalty, the Gophers had a couple of chances to put the game away.

However, a break for the Spartans led to Miller carrying the puck into the Minnesota zone, where a streaking Hirose had skated nearly the entire length of the ice at full speed to break towards Schierhorn’s back post. Miller’s pass was right on target, and Hirose’s eighth goal of the year gave the Spartans hope. Hirose’s next goal made it a 4-3 game, as his cut inside on a 3-on-2 scoring chance gave him enough space to beat Schierhorn at the top of the faceoff circles with 5:33 left in the second period.

“He could have lagged and been tired,” defenseman Carson Gatt said postgame. “He went right to the back post like we’re taught.”

The third period started out evenly, as both teams had chances to change the course of the game with a goal. As it turned out, the second wacky goal of the night tied the game at four. MSU defenseman Butrus Ghafari scored his first collegiate goal, as his pass into the Minnesota zone took a wayward bounce off the corner of the boards and along the red line, bouncing in off of Schierhorn’s left skate.

Momentum was on MSU’s side until a back-breaking Gopher goal with 4:48 remaining in the third period. Sheehy’s second goal of the game came off another Spartan turnover, and his shot beat Lethemon to give Minnesota a lead they would not relinquish.

The Spartans fall to 9-14-1 on the season, and are 3-10-1-1 in conference play. They will travel to Madison Square Garden to finish their series with Minnesota at 8 p.m. EST on Saturday.