Five for ’15: Michigan State

Ben Gotz

A split against the Nittany Lions didn't give the Gophers any separation in the Big Ten Hockey standings.

In fact, none of the teams in the Big Ten separated themselves after every series in the conference ended in a split this past weekend. Meaning the stakes are still the same with three weeks remaining in the regular season schedule.

The Gophers are tied with Michigan at the top, but their opponent this weekend, the Michigan State Spartans, is just two points behind them.

"Every game’s important from here on out," senior forward Seth Ambroz said. "Every win from here on out is huge."

The Gophers clawed their way back to the top of the standings with a 6-1-1 record in the conference the last four weeks, but now it's up to the team to finish.

"It's all in our hands," junior defenseman Brady Skjei said.

Here are five things to watch as the Gophers take on the Spartans Thursday and Friday this weekend:

1. Spartan Defense

When the Gopher visited East Lansing before winter break, they scored eight goals in two games.

But a very different Michigan State defense will come to Mariucci this weekend, as the team has allowed only 10 goals in their last eight games.

Junior goaltender Jake Hildebrand has emerged as one of the top goaltenders in the Big Ten, with his goals-against average and save percentage both tops in the conference.

"Hildebrand on the back end is definitely kind of their rock, so we're going to need to generate a lot of shots and quality shots too," junior defenseman Brady Skjei said.

The Spartans' shot blocking on their back end has led to solid defensive play five-on-five and on the penalty kill, with the Spartans ranking No. 12 in the nation at preventing goals with a man disadvantage.

Head coach Don Lucia said sports will be at a premium when the two teams match up this weekend. The team's defense is solid enough that head coach Don Lucia said it could be enough to power the team through the Big Ten Tournament.

"They’re obviously much improved this year and with the way that they can defend and their goaltending I could easily see them having a great chance in the Big Ten Tournament to win it," Lucia said.

2. Michigan State Suspensions

The Spartans will be two skaters short over the weekend, as head coach Tom Anastos has suspended two players indefinitely according to Chris Solari of the Lansing State Journal.

Freshman forward Dylan Pavelek and freshman defenseman Carson Gatt were both suspended for a violation of team rules according to Solari.

In 27 games this season, Gatt has no goals and three assists. In 20 games, Pavelek did not record a point.

3. Glover Staying at Forward for Another Week

Freshman defenseman Jack Glover got back on the ice after a four game abscence against Penn State, just at a different position.

Glover struggled to play consistent defense during his ice time earlier in the season, and freshman Ryan Collins' emergence on the blue line has left Glover on the bench for nine of the team's 16 games since winter break. 

But with redshirt sophomore Connor Reilly's injury Lucia has tried out different combinations on the team's fourth line of forwards, including moving Glover to forward. And for at least another series, it seems the freshman will stay there.

"For another week, yeah," Lucia said. "I think he did some godo things, and we're going to try to practice him at it this week so he gets some reps so he's a little bit more comfortable in a game. He's got some size and reach and range, he made a nice play with [senior forward Christian Isackson's] goal coming out of our zone."

4. Short Week for Teams

The Gophers schedule takes the form of a Friday-Saturday routine for almost every weekend of the year, but this week the team is playing a day earlier.

The Gophers won't have a Saturday game for only the second series on the year, the other being against Notre Dame in early November.

To prepare for the short week, Lucia gave the players Sunday off and the team had a light practice on Monday. Lucia even said he gave several players Monday off as a "maintanance day."

"It's a quick turnaround," Ambroz said. "This late in the year, obviously you don't worry about getting too much practice."

Skjei said he's welcomed the short week.

"I kind of like it actually," Skjei said. "I like playing more games and less practicing. Looking forward to it for sure."

5. Connor Reilly Update

It's been approximately three and a half weeks since Reilly injured his knee against Wisconsin. Lucia said soon, the team will find out whether it's possible for the forward to return to the lineup this year.

"He's close to being able to skate again," Lucia said. "I think that will dictate whether he'll have an opportunity to come back this year or not. We're hoping that maybe the end of this week or next week he can get back on the ice."