Blake McLaughlin doesn’t really know if he was aiming for the net.
The Gophers had only been playing Michigan State for 1 minute and 11 seconds when McLaughlin released the puck from his stick in the slot. Two defenders immediately sandwiched him, and while the rest of his teammates jumped on each other in celebration, McLaughlin doubled over in the middle of the huddle.
“I just got lit up,” McLaughlin recalled, laughing. “And Scott [Reedy] actually came up to me and was like, ‘You scored!’ And then was like, ‘Are you OK?’ And I was like, ‘I can’t breathe.’ ”
McLaughlin imitated how he gasped for air, but his fast first goal wasn’t the only breathtaking moment as the Gophers beat Michigan State 4-1 on Friday at 3M Arena at Mariucci in front of an announced crowd of 8,860. The most thrilling part was not that the Gophers extended their win streak to six consecutive games but that the Gophers are suddenly atop the Big Ten.
The Gophers (13-10-4, 8-5-4-3 Big Ten) are tied with Ohio State at No. 1 with two games in hand, pulling ahead of Michigan State (13-13-1, 9-7-1-0 Big Ten), which was one of two teams the Gophers were tied with at third place heading into this weekend.
Gophers coach Bob Motzko, though, doesn’t want to think about the standings at all with three more series left in the regular season after the Michigan State series is completed Saturday.
“I heard that coming off the ice,” Motzko said of being tied for first place. “I cringed.”
The in-stadium announcers eliciting that reaction was maybe only fair, since the Gophers certainly made the Spartans wince several times throughout the game. Besides McLaughlin’s early goal, they scored goals in the last second of the second period and the last minute of the game.
“Anything under a minute is going to hurt the other team,” McLaughlin said.
Scoring so quickly — on the first shot, in fact — skyrocketed the Gophers’ confidence while rattling Spartans goaltender John Lethemon’s, especially important since he entered the game with a conference-best 1.62 goals-against average.
While Michigan State did manage to equalize on the power play about seven minutes later from top-line winger Mitchell Lewandowski, that was the Spartans’ only goal.
The Gophers took advantage of several chaotic situations in front of Lethemon, first from winger Sampo Ranta about five minutes into the second period. Lethemon blocked Brannon McManus’ initial shot, but Ranta pushed in the loose puck. Then with 1.9 seconds left in the second period, McLaughlin’s line with Reedy and Sammy Walker refused to quit on a play even with time expiring, and Reedy eventually punched a goal past Lethemon to give the Gophers a two-goal margin.
“We’re playing great hockey,” Reedy said. “So we’ve just got to ride our wave.”
Reedy scored the Gophers’ final goal on an empty net thanks to an unselfish pass from Walker. On the other end of the ice, freshman goaltender Jared Moe finished the game with 22 saves. And while Motzko might not like to dwell on where his team ranks in the conference, he was looking toward the future in one aspect.
He called this win a “grow-up game” for his team, a good example of what a tough grind playoff hockey will be in another month.
“They’re going to be a bear to play in the playoffs,” Motzko said of Michigan State. “They’re physical. There’s no easy ice. And we have to learn that style. … This was a great lesson for us, how hard it is coming down the stretch.”