With a three week stretch of games against North Dakota, Wisconsin and St. Cloud State, it is only fitting when the University of Minnesota hockey team has a non-conference series, they face off against a fellow Big Ten school. What makes it even better is that these games between Minnesota and Michigan State are for a trophy.'
That's right, football is not the only sport to have random trophy games. This weekend sees the third-ranked Gophers and twentieth-ranked Spartans square off for the Mariucci-Bessone Trophy, which is currently in Michigan State's possession.
Normally the two teams have played one game Thanksgiving weekend as part of the College Hockey Showcase - in which Minnesota and Wisconsin play the two Michigan Big Ten schools - but that was scrapped last season. Therefore they are playing their first two-game series with one another since 1980.
Minnesota (11-3-0, 8-2-0 WCHA) enters the last weekend of November leading the WCHA despite splitting their series with St. Cloud State last weekend. After losing 4-3 Friday, the Gophers rallied to win 6-0 behind Kent Patterson's school-record sixth shutout and a hat trick by Nick Bjugstad.
Bjugstad, who is second in the nation in goals and tied for first in points, and Patterson are only two of the players who have taken their game to another level. The Maroon and Gold have the top offense in college hockey and it shows. Sophomore Erik Haula is fourth in the nation with 20 points while Kyle Rau leads all freshmen with 17 points. On the blue line, sophomore Nate Schmidt is second in the country for defensemen with 16 points.
Despite that, there are issues the Gophers need to address. One thing Minnesota would like to change is their Friday night play. The last two weekends have seen them come out sluggish early only to make a late charge when it is too late. This has resulted in Coach Don Lucia shifting lines around and rewarding third and fourth-line players who have been playing hard. However the message still needs to be delivered and this Friday is a good chance for that to happen.
Michigan State has a similar story to the Gophers. The Spartans, despite winning the Frozen Four in 2007, have missed the last three NCAA Tournaments. One of the storied college hockey programs, Michigan State has turned to new coach Tom Anastos to revive the team and get back into the postseason. The Spartans have currently gotten off to a good start and are 7-5-0 overall (4-4-0 CCHA). Although they do not boast the same depth, the Spartans are good defensively and match up well with Minnesota.
Like the Gophers, Michigan State has one of the best penalty kills in the nations and have killed 45 of 51 penalties. For a Minnesota team which struggled with the man advantage the past three weekends outside of Bjugstad in the third period Saturday, that's not good news to hear. Michigan State has split their goalie workload between sophomore Will Yanakeff and senior Drew Palmisano. Although Yanakeff has been better with a .920 save percentage and 5-2 record, Palmisano has had his fair share of games.
Offensively the Spartans are led by senior Mike Merrifield and sophomore Lee Reimer. Merrifield leads the team with seven goals in eight games while Reimer has 17 points for the Spartans. They've only scored 39 goals compared to Minnesota's 61 but Michigan State have the capability to get the puck past Kent Patterson.
There are not WCHA points on the line this weekend but that doesn't mean it is not an important weekend for the Maroon and Gold. With the weekend being seen as a preview of the Big Ten Hockey Conference, which starts in 2013-2014 when Penn State starts their D-1 hockey program, and regaining the Mariucci-Bessone Trophy (not to mention getting back the number one ranking Minnesota lost this past week if polls matter), the Gophers have plenty of reasons to get up for this weekend.
Minnesota and Michigan State face off at Munn Ice Arena Friday and Saturday at 6 PM Central. Both games are broadcast on Fox Sports North and on the radio at ESPN 1500. For more Gophers coverage, check out The Daily Gopher and for the Spartans perspective, check out The Only Colors.