The Gophers chose to err on the side of caution Thursday night. Goaltender and reigning Big Ten MVP Adam Wilcox sat out nursing a minor lower-body injury and freshman Nick Lehr took over in the net for his first career start.
For 20 minutes it looked like the Gophers would sacrifice three points for the health of Wilcox and the big picture. Lehr gave up three goals on four shots in 11 minutes for a three-goal deficit. Then the offense gave Lehr the confidence he needed to shake off the shock and settle in for a turnaround 5-3 victory at Mariucci Arena.
The Gophers (18-10-3, 9-3-3 Big Ten) scored five unanswered goals and Lehr stuffed the Spartans’ next 20 shots on goal to keep his team on top of the Big Ten standings while Wilcox got much-needed time to heal. Lehr finished with 21 saves.
“They guys were always right there for me. … Coach was right there giving me good encouragement,” Lehr said. “… I kind of took that in and kind of settled myself and grounded myself and played the rest of the game.”
Five Gophers recorded at least two points, led by two goals and an assist from senior forward Sam Warning and a goal and two assists from junior defenseman Mike Reilly.
A break in the action midway through the first period gave coach Don Lucia a chance to calm his goalie with a brief message and two pats on the back.
Assistant captain and senior defenseman Ben Marshall attached himself to Lehr’s arm as they skated toward the goal, delivering a message of his own.
“Obviously not the way he wanted to start the game,” Lucia said, “but, to his credit, he settled in and I talked to him during that timeout, ‘Just relax. You played 80 games of junior hockey. Just play the way you can play. Play confident and just try to have some fun out here tonight. I thought after that he settled in and made some key saves to give us a chance.”
The words appeared to be what Lehr needed to hear. He closed out the rest of the night without giving up another goal.
Lehr’s energy visibly picked up after the Hudson Fasching tied the score 7:11 into the second period. Lehr lifted his helmet to take a swig of water and then secured his mask before hitting his chest for self-motivation. His teammates had dug him out of a big hole.
“I was like, ‘They’re battling for you and you’ve got to battle for them.’ I just wanted to keep it really simple for myself,” Lehr said.
Michigan State’s best chance late in the third period came when John Draeger fired from the slot and Lehr couldn’t find the loose puck. But a diving player for Michigan State (13-14-2, 7-6-2-2) knocked the goal out of place.
Joe Cox greeted Lehr with the Spartans’ first goal 85 seconds into the game and six seconds into Michigan State’s first power play. Brent Darnell and Cox scored back-to-back goals midway through the first period for the large early cushion.
“It’s a team game. Once we were down 3-0, we called [Lehr] over on a TV timeout. Everybody got behind him,” Warning said. “It’s his first start. He’s a little nervous. So we knew we had to get a couple goals for him.”