How do you make sure a struggling opponent doesn't play spoiler to your conference championship hopes?
Hang a four-spot on them in the first period and play tight defense the rest of the way.
That's what the Gophers did Saturday at 3M Arena at Mariucci, defeating sixth-place Michigan State 5-1 to sweep the weekend series and bolster their chances to win the Big Ten regular-season championship.
"When you jump out to a 4-0 lead in the first period, you're playing in front all night, but we had great jump throughout all four lines and our 'D' corps,'' Gophers coach Bob Motzko said. "… It was a real, solid game on our end all around.''
With the victory, the fourth-ranked Gophers (19-5, 15-5 Big Ten) improved their conference winning percentage to .750. They also got good news when Wisconsin tied Notre Dame, leaving the second-place Badgers at a .675 winning percentage. Because of the unbalanced number of league games, the conference will use winning percentage to determine its standings and tournament seeds.
The Gophers have two regular-season games left — at home March 5-6 against Michigan — while Wisconsin has four. If the Badgers win out against last-place Ohio State and Michigan State, they would have a .729 winning percentage. In that scenario, Minnesota would need a win and a tie against Michigan to pass the Badgers. One win vs. Michigan would get the Gophers to .727, a win and a tie to .750, and a sweep to .773. Should Wisconsin stumble, the Gophers' path to their first Big Ten title Motzko and fifth since 2014 would get easier.
"Our job is to just keep winning games, so that's what we're focused on right now,'' said senior forward Cullen Munson, who started the first-period outburst with his second goal of the season.
Scott Reedy, Ben Meyers and Jack Perbix joined Munson with goals in the opening 20 minutes as the Gophers won their fourth consecutive game. Sammy Walker also scored, and goalie Jack LaFontaine made 18 saves, notching his NCAA-best 17th victory, as the Gophers outshot Michigan State 31-19.
Gianluca Esteves scored the lone goal for the Spartans (7-13-2, 5-12-1), who lost for the fifth time in six games.
The rout started when Gophers forward Jaxon Nelson won a faceoff, a few seconds later stole the puck from a Spartan at the Minnesota blue line and passed to Munson, who beat goalie Drew DeRidder for a 1-0 lead at 10:18.
"Jaxon Nelson made a heck of a play go get it out of the zone,'' Munson said. "It's nice when you get an early goal and guys just follow up.''
After Reedy and Meyers scored to boost the lead to 3-0, Perbix, who's drawn raves from Motzko for his play at center recently, capped the surge when he finished an odd-man rush for a 4-0 lead at 18:32. The goal was the Gophers' third in four shots and prompted Spartans coach Danton Cole to pull DeRidder in favor of Pierce Charleson.
"I'm just becoming more of a 200-foot player,'' Perbix said. "Defense leads to offense, and as long as I've got that mentality, things are going to go well.''
Idle next week because of the cancellation of the Penn State series, the Gophers now will focus on Michigan.
"If we win, we're good,'' Motzko said. "Let's win.''