In two seasons, the Gophers and Michigan State will be playing each other at least four times a year -- maybe more with conference playoffs -- when both are in the Big Ten Conference.
Fortunately, this weekend they played a nonconference series. No WCHA points were at stake. But the Gophers' one loss and one tie with the Spartans could hurt them in the PairWise standings, a statisical comparison of teams which mimics how the NCAA picks its 11 at-large teams for its postseason tournament.
Their performance also means the Spartans will keep the Mariucci-Bessone Trophy at least until they visit Mariucci next season.
Michigan State won the first game 4-3 after holding leads of 2-0 and 4-2. The Gophers had a brief 4-3 lead in the second game -- for less than two minutes -- before the Spartans tied the score.
The Spartans are 6-1-1 in their last eight games, the Gophers are 3-2-1 in their last six.
The Gophers got shaky goaltending from Kent Patterson in the first game. Something rarely seen so far this season. He was better Saturday, stopping 27 shots. And the Gophers committed only one penalty; defenseman Justin Holl was called for hooking late in the opening period.
But a bad trend is emerging: Starting slow on Fridays. Two weeks ago, the Gophers fell behind Wisconsin 3-0 before losing 3-1. One week ago, they trailed St. Cloud State 4-1 before losing 4-3. And this Friday, they trailed the Spartans 2-0 and 4-2 before losing 4-3.
They split with the Badgers and the Huskies with decisive Saturday wins. But a tie is all they could manage against Michigan State this time.
Coach Don Lucia said the Gophers have been relying too much on one line, that they play their best when all the lines are contributing.
Actually, he could have said they have been relying too much on one player, Nick Bjugstad. The sophomore center had seven goals in a recent four-game stretch. He didn't score on Saturday but it was good to see his linemates get goals, Zach Budish and Kyle Rau. Also Erik Haula scored on Saturday to break a long dry spell. He had been stuck on seven goals for about a month.
Haula had eight shots on goal Friday and nine on Saturday. He was named the third star of Saturday's behind MSU goalie Drew Palamiso and Spartans forward Mike Merrifield.
Bjugstad had only one shot on goal, although defenseman Nate Schmidt tried to set him up several times in the left circle on the power play. Budish had five shots on goal, Rau seven.
Budish said in a postgame interview that the Gophers need more rebounds, tips, deflections and second chances.
Now they are home for the next six weeks, although part of that time they are off for finals and a holiday break. They have seven games in that stretch: two vs. Minnesota State Mankato, two vs. Michigan Tech, one vs. Niagara in their first game of the Mariucci Classic, one vs. Northeatern/Princeton in their second game, and one vs. Notre Dame in the Hockey Hall of Fame game.
The Gophers are 11-4-1 now. In the next seven games, they will be favored in every game except maybe one -- vs. the Irish -- and should go 6-1 or 5-2 at worst unless they keep starting slow on Fridays.
Saw this statistic which is hard to believe: The Gophers have not been swept in a nonconference series since Oct. 16-17, 1999, when Maine swept them in Lucia's first series as Minnesota's coach. The Spartans came too close.
* Neither Nico Sacchetti nor Christian Isackson, the two new players in Saturday's lineup, had any shots on goals. But Sacchetti had two nice blocks, one of which broke up an odd-man rush. He was a minus-1 and won four of 10 faceoffs.