Doug McLeod blog: Gophers hockey insider – Michigan State

THE MATCHUP

Minnesota Golden Gophers (2-4-1, 1-1-0 Big 10) vs. Michigan State Spartans (4-6-0, 0-2-0 Big 10) … 3M Arena at Mariucci, Minneapolis

RECENT HISTORY

Minnesota and St. Lawrence split at Mariucci last weekend. UM had won just once in its previous five games.

Michigan State comes in with five straight losses following a pair at Munn Arena last weekend to Notre Dame and two more at surprising Arizona State the week before — a dismal stretch that was unexpected, given that the green-and-white won four of its first five games.

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KEY STATS

Minnesota’s all-freshmen line of Nathan Burke, Sammy Walker and Blake McLaughlin scored all three goals in Saturday’s 3-0 win over St. Lawrence and contributed six of the Gophers’ nine points in the win. Burke (two goals including the game winner for his first two collegiate points), Walker (1 G/1A) and McLaughlin (2 A) all recorded their first multi-point games with the Gophers. The freshmen class has 17 points on the year, tied with the senior class for Minnesota’s top-scoring group, while the rookies lead the team with eight goals on the year.

Offense is a key hurdle for the Golden Gophers. “Our soft spot right now is our offense,” head coach Bob Motzkow said. “There’s more offense in that room to give. We’ve got to keep pushing. We’ve been riding a yo-yo so far. Several of our young guys have the track record as scorers.”

For Michigan State, in the second year of a rebuilding program under former Spartan star Danton Cole, it’s a long slog back to respectability. Cole knows it’s the basics that build winning programs, and he’s off to a good start. To wit: faceoffs. Michigan State has won the draw more than its opponent in eight of 10 games this season, including both games last weekend vs. Notre Dame. The Spartans are third in the Big Ten and 15th nationally in faceoff winning percentage at 52.8 and have more centers in the top 10 in the league in faceoff wins than any other team.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Minnesota’s Eric Schierhorn stuffed St. Lawrence 3-0 last Saturday, turning away all 12 Saints shots on goal. It was the Shattuck veteran’s 12th career shutout. He’s just one whitewash away from tying the Gopher’s career shutout record shared by Adam Wilcox and Kellen Briggs. So far, Schierhorn has been sharing netminding duties with junior Matt Robson and it’s likely he’ll have at least one start this weekend.

Yet another Gopher freshman notched his first career goal last weekend. Edina’s Sammy Walker was named Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey last spring. He’s one of five ex-Hornets who are seeing regular ice time for the Gophers this season.

“The biggest changes are the D Zone responsibilities and using my speed through the middle,” Walker, who moved from wing to center, said. “It was different but it was good to get our freshman line together.”

MSU’s Olympics-sounding KHL Line of Patrick Khodorenko, Tiro Hirose and Mitchell Lewandowski (who are actually from California, Alberta and Michigan respectively) has accounted for 34 points (15g, 19a) – 46 percent of the team’s total.

WHY THESE GAMES MATTER

For the Gophers: Last weekend’s disappointing split has to be in the rear view mirror with a few lessons learned about consistency and focus. This weekend, it’s Big Ten play in earnest with four straight conference matchups ahead. These early games can kill or cure in the Pairwise when spring rolls around, too.

For the Spartans: Rebuilding is a tough chore but the slide has to stop soon. For Cole to get his team back to respectability, he’ll rely on those young guns to step up and learn the fast-paced college game quickly — and right now.

KEYS FOR THE GOPHERS

— Keep testing lines and let the younger players get comfortable. The all-freshman line is a good example;

— Find the firepower — as Motzkow says, there’s a lot of offense in that locker room and much of it is about ready to burst out;

— Whatever you’re feeding the goalies, keep it up — Schierhorn and Matt Robson continue to sparkle in a two-man rotation that provides depth every night.

BROADCASTS

Ben Clymer, Katie Emmer and I will call both games on Fox Sports North and FSN Plus. Air times: Friday, 7 p.m. (FSN); Saturday, 7 p.m. (FSN+).

DOUG McLEOD is the five-time Emmy Award-winning play-by-play announcer for Fox Sports and a longtime voice of Division I and NHL hockey. This is his 22nd season calling Golden Gopher hockey games.