The Gophers left the ice after the second period laughing.
But 20 minutes later, Michigan State was having the last laugh.
From outshooting the Spartans 31-20 through two periods to collapsing in the third for a 4-2 defeat, the Gophers saw their six-game winning streak and precarious hold on top of the Big Ten Conference crumble Saturday at 3M Arena at Mariucci in front of an announced crowd of 9,661.
“It’s awful disappointing,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said. “Kind of a tale of two games. … We couldn’t have been any better early and any worse late.”
The Gophers (13-11-4, 8-6-4-3 Big Ten) spent not even a full day tied with Ohio State for No. 1 in the conference. Saturday’s loss — just the second in their past 10 games, both to Michigan State — dropped the Gophers back into a three-way tie, this time for second place, with Michigan State and Ohio State. Penn State is two points clear in first, though the Gophers and Michigan State have two games in hand with three series left in the regular season.
“The Big Ten’s a dogfight this year, so everyone’s got to come to play every night,” Gophers winger Scott Reedy said. “They made that push there, and we’ve got to be ready for that.”
Reedy helped the Gophers build off their 4-1 win Friday with another fast start, scoring the first goal late in the first period. His line, also including Sammy Walker and Blake McLaughlin, accounted for both the Gophers goals Saturday, totaling five overall and 13 points throughout the weekend.
Michigan State didn’t score until its 19th shot, leveling in the second period off a rebound from center Patrick Khodorenko. But the Gophers quickly regained the lead from McLaughlin, scrambling to clean up a shot deflected off Michigan State goaltender John Lethemon.
During the intermission, though, the Spartans donned their balaclavas and sneaked past the Gophers defense to steal the game right from their sticks.
The Spartans, who previously looked gassed, came out with renewed energy and capitalized off two Gophers penalties in the first five minutes of the period. A turnover late in the final penalty kill led to defenseman Dennis Cesana’s blue-line strike. Defenseman Butrus Ghafari and winger Brody Stevens would beat Gophers goaltender Jared Moe before the final buzzer sounded. Moe ended the game with 31 saves to Lethemon’s 36.
“That’s not the way we can lose games if we want to keep winning,” Gophers defenseman Ryan Zuhlsdorf said. “Obviously, you’re going to lose one of them, but we don’t want to do it like that. Take a couple penalties. Lose our legs. Lose our compete. No heart. Something to learn from.”
Zuhlsdorf added allowing the Spartans a comeback victory “stings,” especially since it should have been in the Gophers’ capabilities to wrestle the game back even while it spiraled out of control.
The Gophers aren’t looking to assess blame, though. Instead, the focus is on moving on to a series at Notre Dame next weekend. That’s a skill they learned early in the season when the team lost a lot more games than just two in a 10-game stretch.
“We’ve got to feed off the positives,” Reedy said. “And not let our mind slip back to where we were before.”