Minneapolis, MN – Even with “nothing to play for”, the Gophers sure look ready to play for it all.
After a tense opening period, the Minnesota Gophers (24-8-1 Overall (4-3 OT), 16-3-2-2 B1G) took advantage of a parade to the penalty box to bury the Ohio State Buckeyes (18-12-3 (0-0), 11-10-1-1) 4-0 in Friday’s series opener.
Ohio State boasts one of the Big Ten’s best defenses, with the nation’s best penalty kill and a great goalie in Jakub Dobes. The Czech sophomore is one of the best netminders in the conference, but is also a bit of an enigma. In the first period, Dobes took two minor penalties to put his team shorthanded, the first an interference penalty as Dobes skated out and fell over trying to draw a goalie interference call on Minnesota, and the second a delay-of-game penalty after the fourth time he knocked the net off its moorings in the opening frame.
However, the OSU defense stood up to the challenge, and led by Dobes they kept the Gophers off the board despite six minutes of powerplay time for Minnesota.
Brock Faber broke through for the Gophers midway through the second. The junior captain, playing through shoulder pain, took the puck along the right-wing wall and skated all the way down to the front of the net, swatting the puck past Dobes on his second attempt as he cut across the crease.
Just a few minutes later, the penalties continued for the Buckeyes, and the Gophers put the game away. Ohio State took two penalties in 19 seconds to put Minnesota on a lengthy two-man advantage. Mike Koster scored 24 seconds into the five-on-three to give the Maroon and Gold a 2-0 lead. Before the puck was dropped, Ohio State coach Steve Rohlik incurred a bench minor for “Abuse of Officials”, putting Minnesota back on the two-man advantage. Jimmy Snuggerud scored his 20th goal of the season on the ensuing powerplay with a wicked one-time shot from the left circle at 16:53. One minute and 23 seconds later, Mike Koster scored his second goal of the night (on his fourth point of the period) to put Minnesota up 4-0.
The Gophers salted away the third period, with the only real drama coming on two Gopher penalties, but the PK (33 for 35 on penalty kills since the holiday break) helped secure the shutout victory.
The story leading up to the game was the absence of defenseman Jackson LaCombe, whose exclusion from the lineup came as a late surprise to many Gopher hockey watchers. The senior defenseman and Hobey Baker candidate apparently was injured in practice Friday, and is considered week-to-week by the coaches. The recent absences of LaCombe, Faber, and Ryan Chesley have led to some playing time for Carl Fish, who has looked like he belongs on the back end.
The bye week in the first round of the Big Ten tournament likely comes at a good time for Minnesota, who have several key contributors nursing injuries and would like to get back to full health come tournament time.
Saturday’s Minnesota-Ohio State game has implications in the overall seeding in the Big Ten conference. Currently, Michigan (37) has a one-point lead over Ohio State (36) for second place in the league, with idle Michigan State (34) tied with Penn State in fourth place, and Notre Dame (33) just one point back in sixth. It appears that Michigan and Ohio State have home ice locked up, but scenarios exist for any of PSU, MSU, or ND to earn home ice as well.
Before playoff season starts, though, there’s one more game to play to round out the regular season. It’s a quick turnaround for Minnesota and Ohio State on Saturday, with the puck dropping at 4:30 PM central time.