The Michigan State Spartans kick off the season with a road opener against the No. 1 ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers.
The Gophers are defending their league title this season and will be very capable of doing so. Six of their top seven scorers are returning, as well as all six of their starting defensemen. Two elite freshmen, Mike Reilly and Brady Skjei, have also joined the team and will fight for playing time with the veteran defense core. Simply put, the Gophers are stacked.
Yet, despite Minnesota’s lofty preseason ranking, the Spartans are not intimidated. Michigan State proved to be a tough match-up for Minnesota last season, when the No. 2 Gophers lost three points to the Spartans in a series in East Lansing.
However, the Spartans today are a much different team than last year. Michigan State saw the departure of nine seniors, as well as former captain and Hobey Baker finalist Torey Krug, who opted to go pro and signed a free-agent contract with the Boston Bruins. The Spartans will return this season with just 55% of their scoring from last season. 70% of their scoring from forwards returns, while just 11.6% of scoring from their defensemen returns. Pressure will be on new captain Greg Wolfe and the forwards to pick up the slack offensively.
Defensively, the young Spartan defense core will have junior Will Yanakeff in net to fall back on. Last season, Yanakeff was ranked fifth in win percentage (13-9-1, 58.7%), fifth in save percentage (.922), 10th in goals against average (2.50), and has proven to be a solid defensive foundation between the pipes.
Minnesota on the other hand will have to make do without their starting net-minder Kent Patterson, who left for the NHL. Last year Patterson won the WCHA Goaltending Champion award as the goalie with the lowest goals against average (2.06) and helped lead Minnesota to a Frozen Four championship. Now the Gophers will have to make do with two inexperienced goaltenders, Michael Shibrowski and Adam Wilcox. Both of whom have yet to prove they are a legitimate starting goalie. With goaltending being the most important position in the game, Minnesota’s skaters will have to step up big time to fill Patterson’s void.
If Michigan State is going to take series they will have to stick to their physical game and avoid playing Minnesota’s up temp style. Overcoming their youth and inexperience and exploiting Minnesota’s weak goaltending will be the name of the game.