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Quiet dogfight expected as Gophers open road slate at Michigan State

It has been more than five years since Michigan State was a true contender for the Big Ten hockey title, but the Spartans have been a nemesis for Minnesota Gophers coach Bob Motzko, and he expects a similar battle on Thursday and Friday when the teams face off inside a mostly empty and quiet Munn Ice Arena.

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Michigan State's Tommy Miller (right) battled Minnesota Gophers Sammy Walker (left) and Bryce Brodzinski (center) for a loose puck during a game on Jan. 9, 2020 at Munn Ice Arena in East Lansing, Mich. MSU Athletic Communications photo.
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On Monday, the Minnesota Gophers men's hockey team talked about their eagerness to get out of town and see something new after what seems like years of shuttling between 3M Arena at Mariucci and their apartments — and nothing more — while they try to stay safe and free of COVID-19.

With what they face Thursday evening in opening their first road series of the season, the Gophers should be careful what they wish for.

In the early going of the Big Ten slate, the Gophers and Michigan have looked like the teams to beat, as was predicted in the coaches’ poll, which had Minnesota and the Wolverines first and second, respectively.

But based on recent history, the Gophers will not be looking past their first opponent on the four-game trip. Michigan State has not been a true contender for the Big Ten title in the past five years, and has finished in the cellar of the conference standings in three of the last four hockey seasons, but the Spartans have proven to be a nemesis for Bob Motzko’s first two Gophers teams. The Gophers are 3-5-0 versus the Spartans under Motzko, including splits in home and road series last winter.

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Michigan State’s first Big Ten home series opens with the Spartans at 2-1-1 and receiving votes in the national polls, leaving the fifth-ranked Gophers coach expecting more of the same when they skate inside an empty Munn Ice Arena at 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday.

“Very well-coached. All of their games have been tight, really tight, in the four games that they’ve played. That’s what you’re going to expect,” Motzko said, tipping his cap to Spartans coach Danton Cole, who is in his fourth season coaching his alma mater after previous head coaching stops at Alabama Huntsville and with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program. “They’re going to defend well, they’re going to be heavy, they’re going to try to be great on special teams. You’re in for a fight, and it’s going to be a dogfight.”

Like the Gophers, who have had senior Jack LaFontaine in the crease for every minute they have played so far, the Spartans are relying on veteran goaltending, with junior Drew DeRidder getting all of their time in the nets so far. Offensively, it’s been “scoring by committee” so far in East Lansing, with the Spartans’ lone Minnesotan — Grand Rapids, Minn., native Mitchell Mattson — tied for the team lead with two goals and an assist in four games. Cole said they expect a notable challenge from the Gophers.

“They’re a handful. They play the game the right way. They play fast, they move the puck and you’d better be ready for them defensively, and offensively you’re going to have to work to get your chances,” said the Spartans’ coach. “Very impressed with them. Bob (Motzko) does a great job coaching and it will be a good test for us.”

Motzko has already noted that he does not expect senior forward Brannon McManus, who leads the Gophers in points, in the lineup versus the Spartans. But the Gophers are otherwise healthy heading into the series. While they have experienced four games in their own empty arena, this will be the first series where they will not have an opposing team’s student sections vocally scrutinizing their every move. LaFontaine said in the preseason that he will miss the razzing, as he likes being the villain, and both teams admit that something is lost with no fans in the buildings.

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“I used to like going on the road. When you’d win a game and the crowd would start booing, I always thought that was the fun part of college athletics. So hopefully that’s something that motivates you, when you get a good hostile arena,” said Cole, whose team split a series at Ohio State last weekend. “I’m hoping the guys have that edge and that composure and that passion. They like it when the other crowd is getting after them. They thrive on that and they feed off that, and I think good athletes do. I don’t think that Spike Lee bothered guys like Michael Jordan at Madison Square Garden.”
Fox Sports North is televising the two games between Minnesota and Michigan State, with Anthony LaPanta and Ben Clymer on the call. The video may also be streamed on the Fox Sports Go app and on BTN+. Wally Shaver and Frank Mazzocco will handle the radio broadcast on 1130 AM/103.5 FM and streamed on iHeartRadio.

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Michigan State coach Danton Cole is in his third season behind the bench for his alma mater. He was the head coach at Alabama Huntsville for three seasons and played more than 300 games in the NHL. Michigan State Athletics photo.

Danton Cole.jpg
Michigan State coach Danton Cole is in his third season behind the bench for his alma mater. He was the head coach at Alabama Huntsville for three seasons and played more than 300 games in the NHL. Michigan State Athletics photo.

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