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Walker leads Gophers men’s hockey in 3-1 victory to sweep Michigan State

Saturday’s win guarantees the Gophers at least home-ice advantage for the Big Ten Tournament.
Image by Brad Rempel – Gopher Athletics
Gophers men’s hockey captain Sammy Walker celebrates a goal he scored en route to a 10-0 win against Arizona State on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021, at 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis, Minn.

With the second game of the series against Michigan State knotted at 1-1 in the third period, senior co-captain Sammy Walker took over in the last 10 minutes to lift the No. 8/10 Gophers men’s hockey team to a 3-1 victory and their fourth series sweep this season Saturday night.

“We’re down four major players in our lineup,” Gophers head coach Bob Motzko said. “Last night, our freshmen popped through for us. In the second night when we needed it, our captain came through for us.”

Midway through the final frame, Walker skated his way toward a breakaway, but Michigan State’s Erik Middendorf hooked him, eliminating a high-quality chance. Then, on the delayed penalty, junior Jackson LaCombe fed Walker a pass near the right faceoff circle, where he one-timed the puck into the back of the net to give the Gophers a 2-1 lead with 9:21 remaining.

But the Gophers veteran leader was not done just yet. 1:28 later, while on the man advantage, junior Ryan Johnson sent a pass across the circles to an open Walker, who rifled a shot into the upper half of the net to cement Minnesota’s 3-1 win with 7:53 remaining in the game.

Before the game, Motzko called out Walker’s line to a challenge, and Walker stepped up big time. With his two-goal performance, Walker’s 11 goals this season tie for the team’s most with junior co-captain Ben Meyers and junior Bryce Brodzinski.

“Our line’s got to produce. That’s it. It was nice that we could get a couple there,” Walker said. “It was a huge game…every game, every play matters. So, it was nice to get that sweep.”

Opposite of Friday night’s game that saw a slow start for Minnesota, the Gophers got off to a speedy start at 3M Arena at Mariucci.

Senior Ben Brinkman opened up the scoring for the Gophers just 1:39 into the contest after firing a blistering one-timer into the upper right corner of the net from the slot off a drop pass feed from freshman Rhett Pitlick to give Minnesota a 1-0 lead.

Brinkman’s early tally for Minnesota marked his first goal in a Gophers uniform since November. 9, 2018, to end his scoring drought at 123 games.
“I haven’t been much of a goal-scorer, but I found the right area. Pitter [Pitlick] made a good pass,” Brinkman said. “I haven’t had that feeling in a while. Not much of a goal-scorer, but it felt good to score a goal.”

The Gophers continued to dominate Michigan State throughout the remainder of the opening period as the Spartans did not have an answer for Minnesota’s relentless offensive attack.

Michigan State did not record their first shot on goal until 9:23 had passed. The Gophers were winning races to pucks, controlling the pace, and making it difficult for the Spartans to break out of their zone as they held a 1-0 lead into the first intermission.

Right out of the gate in the second period, Michigan State dumped the puck deep into the Gophers’ zone. Then, they quickly capitalized on a Minnesota turnover behind the net as Jesse Tucker one-timed the loose puck from the slot to tie the game at 1-1 just 16 seconds into the middle frame. The tally marked the Spartans’ lone goal of the game.

Michigan State’s goaltender Drew DeRidder kept the Spartans in the game all night long. He made 32 saves on 35 shots faced, including nine on five Minnesota power plays.

“Good game for us again tonight. If it would’ve went sideways, DeRidder was the answer,” Motzko said. “He was outstanding.”

On the opposite side of the ice, junior goaltender Justen Close made 25 saves (.962 save percentage) to help the Gophers get the series sweep and their ninth-straight win against the Spartans.

Saturday’s victory guarantees the Gophers at least home-ice advantage in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.

Minnesota (17-11) will travel to Columbus, Ohio, to take on the Ohio State Buckeyes (on Friday, Feb. 11, at 5:30 p.m., and Saturday, Feb. 12, at 5 p.m. as they look to continue rising in the Big Ten standings.

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