Minnesota splits at home with Spartans

Head coach Don Lucia is one victory away from breaking the program record.

Minnesota goalie Nick Lehr guards the net in the second period against Michigan State at Mariucci Arena on Thursday.  Minnesota beat Michigan State 5-3.

Holly Peterson

Minnesota goalie Nick Lehr guards the net in the second period against Michigan State at Mariucci Arena on Thursday. Minnesota beat Michigan State 5-3.

by Ben Gotz

The Gophers’ quest to get head coach Don Lucia’s name etched in Minnesota’s record books got off to a bad start on Thursday.

Freshman goaltender Nick Lehr, making his first collegiate start, gave up three goals on the first four shots he faced.

After only 10 minutes of play, the Gophers found themselves in a 3-0 hole.

But picking up its goaltender, the team battled back and took the lead in less than a period and a half.

Secured with an empty-net goal, the game was head coach Don Lucia’s 390th career victory at Minnesota, which moved him into a tie for the most in program history.

But after rallying for a 5-3 victory on Thursday against MSU, the Gophers couldn’t mount another comeback on Friday and lost 4-2, dropping their first home game in conference play since joining the Big Ten.

“It’s an emphasis for them to score first,” senior captain Kyle Rau said on Friday. “We didn’t do that. We came back yesterday, but [we] can’t continue to put yourself behind right off the get-go.”

Lucia’s record-tying victory came with an unfamiliar face in the goal. Because of an injury to junior goaltender Adam Wilcox, Lehr was thrust into game action for only his second time this season.

After the Spartans’ three goals, a timeout on the ice allowed Lucia to call his freshman goaltender to the bench, where his coach and teammates offered their support.

And after a few saves with his midsection, Lehr settled in.

“After the three goals, I think there were one or two saves right away that kind of ended up towards my chest,” Lehr said. “I think that was kind of like a hug for me. It was just like, ‘All right, here you go, be comfortable and go from here.’”

The Gophers worked to support their goaltender. Minnesota controlled the puck until senior forward Travis Boyd put the team on the board at the end of the first period.

The Gophers kept the pressure on, chipping away at the Michigan State lead. And once Lehr’s teammates started backing him up, he backed them up, too.

“I was like, ‘They’re battling for you, you’ve got to battle for them,’” Lehr said.

The freshman ended the game with 20 consecutive saves to close out the victory.

“I’m really happy for Nick,” Lucia said. “I talked to him in that timeout, I just said, ‘Hey, relax. [You] played 80 games at junior hockey, just play the way you can play. Play confident, and try to have some fun out here tonight.’”

On Friday, Wilcox returned to lead the Gophers onto the ice, but the team was drastically different from Thursday.

Michigan State outworked and outshot the Gophers, and its defense stifled Minnesota all night.

“They were keeping us away from the front of the net,” Rau said. “That’s how we scored last night, so I’m sure it was an emphasis for them this morning.”

The Spartans controlled possession throughout the game and pounced on turnovers to take a 3-1 lead in the third period.

Rau attempted a comeback by making it a one-goal game late in the period, but sophomore forward Hudson Fasching was called for a late penalty and the Gophers couldn’t recover.

“They were first on pucks, they won battles, and they deserved to win,” Lucia said.

The Gophers will have to wait another week to try to get their head coach in the record books.

And this time, they’ll be away from home ice.

“It would’ve been a great honor for [Lucia] to do it in front of our home fans,” Rau said.