If last year's University of Minnesota hockey team had an achillies heel, it would be getting going on Friday nights. The Gophers were 12-11 in the opening game of a series, including a 5-8 stretch on Fridays between November and the end of the regular season.
After Friday's 5-1 opening win over Michigan State, that may not be the case for Minnesota this year.
Nick Bjugstad (Florida Panthers) scored a goal and assisted on another as the Gophers scored three goals in the first 13:38 of the game. Junior goalie Michael Shibrowski made 25 saves for Minnesota while Mike Reilly (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Christian Isackson (Buffalo Sabres) scored their first collegiate points.
"With Friday nights being trouble for us in the past, we wanted to make sure we got out to a great start," said junior defenseman Nate Schmidt.
The Spartans beat and tied Minnesota in their two-game series last year in East Lansing. This year, however, it was the Gophers who used their speed advantage over the Spartans to beat them to pucks, spend entire shifts in the MSU zone and never let Michigan State catch up. Sophomore Ben Marshall (Detroit Red Wings) got the first goal of the season 4:07 into the game when he slapped home a Zach Budish (Nashville Predators) pass past Spartans goalie Will Yanakeff.
Following the expiration of a Mike Reilly penalty, the freshman made amends and found Nick Bjugstad all alone to make it 2-0.
"(Reilly) hit me in front of the foot," said Bjugstad about the pass. "It was a good pass from him. Luckily he was coming straight out of the box."
Minnesota wasn't done scoring as Christian Isackson added another - his first official collegiate goal - to give the team a 3-0 lead after 20 minutes. The Gophers gave MSU few opportunities on offense, out-shooting MSU 13-5, and the team's defense forced the Spartans enough to the outside where Shibrowski only faced one shot below the faceoff dots.
"We did something we wanted to see," said Gopher head coach Don Lucia. "(Shibrowski) had a great night and the defense did a good job protecting him."
Michigan State came out charged to start the second and took advantage of Minnesota getting a little too cute at times. It wasn't enough as the balance shifted back to the Gophers by the end of the period and last year's leading scorer Erik Haula scored his first goal with 2:14 left to expand the lead to 4-0.
The Minnesota Wild prospect created his own chance by driving into the net, picking up the rebound and lifting it over Yanakeff's right shoulder.
Travis Boyd (Washington Capitals) matched his freshman season total 11:30 into the third period when he buried home a rebound in front of the net on the Gophers' first power play of the game. It completed a stretch in which he spent most of the second and third periods creating scoring chances from the team's third line but just missing.
Getting offense from beyond the usual players ended up being key as three of the four lines scored goals and players like Boyd and Isackson, who stood out on both ends of the ice, making a difference up front.
"We talked about how these sophomores have to battle," said Lucia about Boyd, Isackson and the rest of the sophomore class. "They have to be that secondary scoring option."
At the same time, freshmen defensemen Brady Skjei (New York Rangers) and Reilly held their own in their first game and were poised on the blue line.
Tanner Sorenson avoided the shutout for Michigan State when he found himself open in front of the net with 4:01 left in the game to cut the lead to 5-1. The Spartans finally woke up Friday night but by then it was too late.
Something Minnesota already knows too much about from last year.
3 Stars of the Game
1. Nick Bjugstad (1G 1A)
2. Mike Reilly (2A)
3. Zach Budish (2A)
Minnesota and Michigan State play again tomorrow night at 8 p.m. CT. Fox Sports North will broadcast the game.
Follow Nate on Twitter @gopherstate