State College, PA – The hand-wringing from the Gopher faithful this week was almost audible.
After a disappointing split in Madison, Minnesota fans were getting a little restless after learning that the team would be without defensemen Brock Faber and Ryan Chesley for at least a week. Many were wondering whether the team might let off the gas after “backing into” the Big Ten championship when Ohio State beat Michigan in a shootout Thursday night.
For those harboring doubts, Friday’s game may have gone a long way to erase them.
Behind an offensive explosion, the Minnesota Gophers (22-8-1 Overall (3-3 OT), 15-3-1-2 B1G) trounced the seventh-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions (19-11-1 (1-2), 9-9-0-3) by a 7-2 score. Logan Cooley (1G-4A) had all five of his points in a mammoth second period, which put the game away.
The Gophers have struggled at Pegula Ice Arena in recent years, but it felt like home sweet home for Minnesota, who started strong and never gave up the lead. The Maroon and Gold got on the board at 6:47 on a great tic-tac-toe passing play between Aaron Huglen, Rhett Pitlick, and Connor Kurth. The Gophers entered the zone on a two-on-two rush, with Huglen skating up the right and Pitlick streaking up the left. Huglen saucered a perfect pass over a sliding defenseman and onto Pitlick’s tape near the crease. Instead of shooting, Pitlick tapped the puck back to Kurth, who was coming down the middle of the ice. Kurth was able to fire the puck into a gaping net for the early 1-0 lead.
Jimmy Snuggerud increased the lead to 2-0 in the final minutes of the first period, with a hard and accurate wrist shot that beat PSU goalie Liam Souliere. Carl Fish saw some ice with the injuries to Faber and Chesley, and earned his first point of the season on the Snuggerud tally.
The second period was all Gophers, with Minnesota scoring twice in the first three minutes of action. Matthew Knies kicked off the parade at just 0:29 on a beautiful backdoor pass from Cooley. Ryan Johnson added a goal on a wrist shot from the left circle at 2:56 (assist to Cooley). At 6:34 of the period, PSU’s Carter Schade took a roughing call for a hit after the whistle on Fish, and in the scrum that ensued another PSU player grabbed Cooley’s facemask and earned a 5-minute stay in the penalty box as a result.
Minnesota wasted little time, with Snuggerud scoing just 13 seconds into the 5×3 to put Minnesota up 5-0 (assist to Cooley). Jackson LaCombe scored near the end of the major penalty to put the Gophers up 6-0 (assist to Cooley).
Penn State got on the board at 14:27 of the second to pull within five at 6-1, but Cooley wasn’t done yet. Jackson LaCombe hit him with a long breakaway pass, and Cooley backhanded the puck up over the PSU goalie to increase the lead to 7-1.
Minnesota took a couple penalties in the third but generally were playing a game designed to not allow the opposition much momentum. Owen Bartoszkiewicz replaced Justen Close at the 10-minute mark of the third and allowed a goal on five shots in his audition.
The Gophers had already clinched the Big Ten title with OSU’s shootout victory Thursday night, but they still are playing for the #1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and a win over a strong Penn State team can only help. As of Monday, Minnesota has a 73% chance of getting the #1 overall seed, and that can only have increased following the win Friday night.
These same two teams square off again Saturday in the rubber match of the series. The puck drops at 5:30PM central time on Big Ten Network.
Post Game Audio courtesy of Gopher Sports.