Sammy Walker celebrates the game winner.
Sammy Walker celebrates the game winner.

Gophers Advance to Big Ten Title Game with 3-2 Win Over Penn State

Minneapolis, MN – “Hopefully that was our clunker.”

Gopher coach Bob Motzko was critical of his Gopher team following their semifinal victory against Penn State Saturday night, and his assessment was not inaccurate.

However, despite the shaky performance, Minnesota (22RW-9RL-2OTW-2OTL Overall) was able to sneak past the Nittany Lions (16-19-1-1) to advance to the championship game next weekend against Michigan.

Said Motzko: “We survived it, and you have to do that in one-and-done tournaments.”

While the other six teams waged battle in quarterfinal series last week, the Gophers earned a bye by winning the league title.  A bit of extra rest is never strictly a bad thing at this time of year, but the team showed some rust in the early goings against PSU.

It took the team about 10 minutes to get their legs under them, and then the Gophers started turning the gears.  Gopher captain Ben Meyers got the game’s first goal at 12:04 of the first period, a tip-in off a Ryan Johnson shot from the point.  Minnesota continued to pour on the pressure throughout the final half of the period, but PSU’s Liam Souliere was strong between the pipes for the Nittany Lions and held the Gophers to just one goal.

With just one second left in the period, Ben Meyers drew a holding penalty on a fantastic rush up the ice, so the Gophers started the second on the powerplay.  Jackson LaCombe’s wrister from the point somehow made it through the dual screens of Jaxon Nelson and Matthew Knies in front of the net and past Liam Souliere just 27 seconds into the period to put Minnesota up 2-0.

Motzko praised the powerplay goal, saying that “you’ve gotta get greasy goals in the playoffs.”

The man advantage has struggled all season, but actually has been a bit better of late, scoring in each of the Gophers’ last four games and going 4-9 (44%) in that span.  Prior to that, Minnesota had gone four for their last 56 (7%) since December.

After the goal, though, the wheels started to fall off.  Penn State gradually began controlling the game, forcing Minnesota into bad habits and creating chances on turnovers.  The Nittany Lions finally scored at 14:58 of the period to draw within one at 2-1, and again just a few minutes later on the powerplay to tie it at 2-2.  Just like that, it was a brand new game heading into the third.

The Gophers knew they needed to play differently in order to have a chance to win.  Sammy Walker described the scene in the locker room following the second period:

“In the second period we kinda got away from our game.  In that intermission we kinda just settled down [and talked about] get[ting] back to that way we played the first period.  Getting pucks deep, go low-high, get to the net.  Not a lot was said, it was just we kinda knew what we had to do, and gotta play the right way.”

The teams played a tight third period, with neither team seemingly wanting to give up too many chances.  The only real chance for the Gophers came late in the period after a Penn State odd-man rush.

PSU committed four skaters to an offensive chance after a low-angle Gopher shot wrung around the boards and out of the zone, but Blake McLaughlin got his stick on the Penn State cross-ice pass to break up the rush, and sent Sammy Walker off on an odd-man rush of his own.  Walker and Brodzinski tried a give-and-go play on the ensuing 3-on-1, but Walker couldn’t handle the pass back and the puck skittered into the corner.  PSU tried to clear the puck, but Brodzinski kept it in at the blueline and found McLaughlin alone near the net.  McLaughlin got the puck backdoor to Walker, who tapped it in for the game-winning goal.

Walker described the goal after the game: “Brodzinski made a good keep in on the blue line, keeping it in, and then made a great pass over to Blake [McLaughlin].  He put it right on my tape.  I missed the one earlier, so I made sure that one went in.”

Gopher goalie Justen Close was again steady between the pipes, making lots of good quality saves to seal the win for Minnesota.

With the win, the Gophers will host Michigan, in what is setting up as an historic clash between two really high quality hockey teams.  Michigan is currently #2 in the Pairwise rankings and #4 in the USCHO poll, while Minnesota is #4 / #2 respectively.

The players and coaches seem excited for the chance to play Michigan for the Big Ten playoff trophy.

Motzko: “We’re 2-2 [against Michigan this year], the rubber match right now.  It set’s up great.  Let’s get this crowd back next week.  I think it’s going to be a fun game.  I can’t wait for it.”

Walker: “It’s gonna be fun.  We’re excited, so, we’ve just gotta keep our foot and the pedal and keep moving.”

Minnesota and Michigan play Saturday at 7PM.