Men’s hockey: Freshmen step up as Gophers beat Michigan State in series opener

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MINNEAPOLIS – With three of their best players overseas, going into battle for their country, maybe a youth movement is just what the Minnesota Gophers needed.

Trailing by two after 20 minutes, the Gophers got a quartet of goals in the second half of the game – three of them from freshmen – and rallied to beat Michigan State 4-2 in the opener of their weekend Big Ten series.

Justen Close had 21 saves for the Gophers (16-11-0 overall, 11-6-0 Big Ten) who got goals from rookies Rhett Pitlick, Aaron Huglen and Tristan Broz, as well as a dramatic go-ahead goal from Blake McLaughlin, winning their eighth consecutive game versus the Spartans.

“It was huge for two reasons,” said Gophers coach Bob Motzko of the freshmen stepping up. “One, we need it because they’re good players and they’re going to do it. But it was great for them because they’ve been feeling it the whole second half…It’s all about confidence and feeling good, and that’s a big statement.”

Michigan State (11-15-1, 5-12-0) got early goals from Christian Krygier and Jeremy Davidson, and a strong performance in goal from Pierce Charleson, but saw their early advantage fade away.

“We got a couple goals in the first which was nice and it was 2-2 going into the third,” said Spartans coach Danton Cole. “We did some things half decent in the third, but you have to find a way to get the third (goal) sometimes in the game like that. They kept pushing.”

The Gophers dominated the first two shifts and tested Charleson early, but Michigan State struck suddenly to quiet the home crowd. Barely two minutes into the game, Krygier picked the pocket of Gophers forward Jack Perbix and came in alone on Close from the red line. The MSU defenseman flipped a backhander that beat Close’s glove for an early 1-0 Spartans advantage.

A power play gave the Gophers a chance to move the puck and test Charleson, but they didn’t get anything on the scoreboard. Then Davidson was released from the penalty box and less than 20 seconds later converted a 2-on-1 break by slipping a shot past Close for a 2-0 lead.

The home team’s youth movement began in the second period, when Pitlick took a pretty pass from Mike Koster and blasted a low shot past Charleson on the glove side to make it a one-goal game. It was Pitlick’s first collegiate goal and reminiscent of Chaska High School, where he and Koster played together with chemistry.

“I think there was a lot of emotion in that play. A former teammate from high school, Mike Koster, I gave him a nice pass and he gave me a nice pass back,” Pitlick said. “It was just a one-timer that ended up in the back of the net. That’s the monkey off the back. It’s been a while, but I think it came at a good time.”

Less than two minutes later, Huglen rammed his way to the front of the net and slipped a puck over the goal line with the Gophers buzzing in front of the Spartans’ crease to forge a tie.

In his previous two starts versus the Gophers (both of them losses) Charleson had registered 102 saves, so the 19 shots he faced in the second period were a relatively normal workload. He finished with 36 saves for the Spartans, who have now lost seven straight.

McLaughlin finally gave the Gophers the lead early in the third, capping off a high-speed rush to the net with a wrist shot that hit the top right corner behind Charleson. It was the 10th goal of the season for McLaughlin and came on his team’s first shot of the period. Broz scored an insurance goal on a chip shot from in close later.

For Motzko, it was his 350th career win.

“I had no idea until someone said it. I would just really like to get to 351 quick,” he joked after the game. “That’s it. I’m not big into nostalgia, if anyone knows me.”

It was Minnesota’s first game played without Matthew Knies, Ben Meyers and Brock Faber, who are skating for Team USA at the Winter Olympics in China for the next three weeks. The series concludes with a 5 p.m. first faceoff on Saturday night.

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