MINNEAPOLIS – A month ago the Minnesota Gophers had three team captains. Then one of them (Jack LaFontaine) signed a pro contract and another one (Ben Meyers) went to China to play in the Olympics, leaving Sammy Walker as the only Gopher in a team leadership role.
And on Saturday, Walker took it upon himself to lead the team to a win.
Walker scored two goals in the latter half of the third period for the difference-makers, as the Gophers beat Michigan State 3-1 for a sweep of their weekend series. With the win, Minnesota clinched home ice in the opening round of the Big Ten playoffs next month.
The Gophers (17-11-0, 12-6-0 Big Ten) swept their season series with the Spartans and ran their winning streak to nine straight versus Michigan State. Justen Close had 25 saves to improve to 5-3-0 as the Gophers’ starter.
“Sammy, there’s your captain when you need him. Sammy was outstanding all game,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said, praising the Spartans’ 60-minute effort. “We ran into a hot goalie, and then they started to feed off it because they were in the game. Then with Michigan State’s energy, it rose to an even-matched game. And it was going to take a play to make…Next goal was going to take that game. We’ve been in it. Thank goodness it came to our side.”
The Spartans (11-16-0, 5-13-0) have lost eight straight, despite a stellar show in goal from Drew DeRidder, who had 32 saves in the loss.
“We pushed them right down to the end, and it was unfortunate that two kind of unforced errors led to two goals,” Spartans coach Danton Cole said. “The guys didn’t cheat us. They worked really hard and played pretty good hockey, and we had some chances. That’s kind of where it’s at right now.”
With the game tied in the latter stages of the third period, Walker was hooked on the way to the net, then scored on a delayed penalty with Close on the bench for an extra attacker. On the ensuing power play, Walker scored again after a nice pass from Ryan Johnson to give the Gophers some breathing room.
In the team’s morning skate on Saturday, Motzko had challenged the team’s top line of Walker, Blake McLaughlin and Chaz Lucius to step up, and they did.
“Our line has got to produce. That’s it. It’s nice that we could get a couple there,” Walker said.
It was their fourth series sweep of the season, and their first at home since October, when they won two games with Notre Dame.
After falling behind by a pair of goals before rallying to win on Friday, the Gophers came out firing right from the opening faceoff in the rematch. Their “go to the net” attitude paid off when, following a set-up pass from Rhett Pitlick, Brinkman blasted a rising shot from the slot that caught the upper right corner of the net, just under the crossbar.
For Brinkman, a senior defenseman, it was just the second goal of his career and snapped a streak of 123 games he had gone without scoring.
“I passed it to (Pitlick) and decided to join the rush,” Brinkman said. “(Assistant coach) Paulie (Martin) is always telling me to not hold onto it and try to shoot it fast so I just one-timed it and it went in. It felt good.”
The Gophers dominated the first two periods offensively, putting 28 shots on DeRidder in the first 40 minutes, but emerged with nothing but a 1-1 tie to show for all that effort. The Spartans drew even on their first shot of the second period, when two green sweaters got open in front of close and Jesse Tucker scored his second goal of the season.
“If it would’ve gone sideways, DeRidder was the answer,” Motzko said. “He was outstanding when we had point-blank chances.”
The Gophers travel to Ohio State for two road games next weekend.