Five for ’15: Post Michigan State Series

by Ben Gotz

The Gophers first home loss in their short Big Ten history put them back on the bubble.

After the Gophers 4-2 loss against Michigan State Friday night the team is No. 13 in the PairWise rankings, right on the verge of missing the NCAA tournament. The Gophers still have four conference games and the Big Ten Tournament to decide their fate, but after an unbeaten streak of seven games the team has dropped two of their last three contests.

For a team that looked like it was figuring things out, a lot is back up in the air entering the last two weekends of the season.

Here's four other observations, notes and anecdotes following the Gophers series against the Spartans.

1. Lehr's First Start

Don Lucia said he made the decision 100 percent on Wednesday.

Adam Wilcox would sit out a game due to an injury he sustained against Penn State, and freshman Nick Lehr would make his first start in net. Lehr took to the ice earlier in the season when Wilcox was pulled against Michigan, but this time was different.

"You get a little deer in the headlights at times," Lucia said. "He played well when he went in against Michigan but he didn’t have time to think about it. I think this week he kind of knew he’d be playing on Thursday. The mental toughness part is when you start like that, it’s how you stay with the game, and I thought he stayed with the game."

Lehr let up three goals on the first four shots he faced, but at every turn he said his teammates kept encouraging him.

'Be comfortable. You’re a good goalie, you’ve been here before. You play here every day, just kind of have fun.'

"I think I just kind of took that in, and I settled myself and kind of grounded myself in and played the rest of the game," Lehr said.

Backed by the rest of his teammates, Lehr made 20 straight saves after allowing his third goal to earn a win in his first career start. And the win gave Lehr plenty to think about before the next time he skates between the pipes.

"It’s been a fun season," Lehr said. "I think everything in this game is just kind of building points."

2. Starting Slow

Senior captain Kyle Rau was able to rattle off the Spartans record when scoring the first goal after the game on Friday.

12-1-2 coming into the weekend.

Getting a good start was clearly stressed throughout the week for the Gophers, but the team allowed the Spartans to score first in both contests. The Gophers have now given up the first goal in their last four games.

"We had a good early some momentum the first five, six minutes but then they took the first period over," Lucia said. "Shots were about 14-4 [in the first] after we got three or four to start the game."

3. "House" Battle

Thursday, the Gophers won the battle around the net by hammering in goals right around the Michigan State crease.

Friday, they got a taste of their own medicine, as none of the Spartan goals traveled very far to get past Wilcox.

"Their goals were in front of our net," Lucia said. "Three times I know our forwards were right with guys and didn’t pick up sticks so much like we scored those goals last night they did tonight."

And while Rau was still able to pound home two goals just feet away from the net, the Spartans defense overall didn't allow too many opportunities close to goaltender Jake Hildebrand.

"They did a good job of that and they beat us 4-2 in front of our own net and that was the game," Rau said.

4. Michigan State Turnaround

The Spartans defense wasn't the only reason for the team's resurgent performance Friday. Head coach Tom Anastos gave most of the credit to his offense for the win.

"That’s what led to better defense," Anastos said. "I thought our forecheck was way better, way more offensive zone possession time. I really liked how we entered the zone with possession tonight. I thought we were better in our defensive zone when we were there, but I thought we spent way more time in the offensive zone, which was key to our defense."

Lucia said the Spartans' "halo" defense gave his team trouble in the second game. Lucia said every time the Gophers would move five feet with the puck, the Spartans would too without closing on the puck right away.

The team's smart and disciplined play showed throughout the night, slowing down and frustrating the Gophers in the 4-2 win.

"You know what, the best team won tonight," Lucia said. "They did a really nice job…they worked from the puck drop."