Justen Close with a huge save on Jacques Bouquot of Penn State. Photo by Craig Cotner.
Justen Close with a huge save on Jacques Bouquot of Penn State. Photo by Craig Cotner.

Gophers Sweep Penn State, Look Forward to Semifinal

Minneapolis, MN – Behind 5-1 and 3-2 victories this weekend, the Minnesota Gophers (22-9-5 Overall (4-1 OT), #6 Pairwise) swept the Penn State Nittany Lions (15-18-3 (0-1), #23), ending PSU’s season and moving Minnesota on to the semifinal round of the Big Ten Tournament.

Friday night’s game was a tight affair before Minnesota pulled away late. Sam Rinzel’s huge slapshot at 7:21 of the first period gave the Gophers an early lead, but Penn State tied the game at 10:56.

The second period Friday was sluggish for Minnesota, with the Gophers really only finding a spark after Bob Motzko swapped Bryce Brodzinski and Jimmy Snuggerud on their respective lines. Jaxon Nelson found Snuggerud out front with a pass from the left-wing corner, with Snuggerud tapping in the goal at 14:21 of the second to put Minnesota up 2-1. Aaron Huglen provided the dagger early in the third, tipping in a Carl Fish shot from the point at 2:18 to put the Gophers up 3-1.

Rhett Pitlick added an insurance marker at 10:43 and capped off the scoring with an empty netter at 16:59. Justen Close made 20 saves on 21 Penn State shots to earn the win.

Saturday’s game got derailed almost before it started. After Jaxon Nelson scored at 1:38 on a seeing-eye wrister from the top of the right circle, Jimmy Snuggerud was tossed for a checking-from-behind major. Coming just 4:07 into the opening period, the Gophers would take two more penalties before Snuggerud’s five-minutes were up, meaning three maroon and gold jerseys were in the penalty box and only three Gopher skaters on the ice for quite some time in the early goings.

Your goaltender has to be your best penalty killer, and Justen Close was that for Minnesota, putting up a brick wall and helping the Gophers kill all 6:54 of PSU power play (including 2+ minutes of 5-on-3). After that, Penn State received two penalties in quick succession, giving Minnesota an extended two-man advantage. Jaxon Nelson scored just as the first PSU penalty expired, one-timing a snapshot from the left circle to beat a sliding PSU goalie Souliere and give Minnesota a 2-0 lead.

After the first period, Penn State played like they had nothing to lose. The Nittany Lions outshot the Gophers 35-7 in the final two frames, thoroughly dominating the game and scoring two second-period goals to tie it up at 2-2 entering the third.

In the third, Penn State poured chance after chance into the Minnesota crease, but Close kept the Gophers in it, making several incredible saves to keep the game 2-2 (including when the puck slid agonizingly close to the goal line before a Gopher defenseman was able to take it off the line and clear the danger).

Penn State appeared to have scored the go-ahead goal with five or so minutes to go, but Minnesota challenged the call for an offsides, and the challenge was successful in overturning the call. The Gophers had challenged a check-from-behind unsuccessfully in the first period, which resulted in them losing their timeout. If you lose a challenge after losing your timeout, your team incurs a delay-of-game penalty, so it was a risky coaching decision from Motzko.

The Gophers withheld the onslaught from PSU, and caught a break when a PSU defender fell down, creating a rare scoring chance for Minnesota. Brody Lamb took the turned-over puck before feeding it to Aaron Huglen on the opposite side of the net. Huglen tipped the pass into the cage with just 1:08 left in the third, putting Minnesota up for good at 3-2 and sending them on to the semifinal round.

The Big Ten semifinal is a one-game play-in to the championship game, but Minnesota doesn’t yet know who or where they will play next weekend. Michigan State, who won the league and earned a bye into the second round, will face the lowest-seeded advancing seed, and the two teams left-over will face off in the other semifinal game.

Currently, #3 Minnesota and #4 Michigan have won their series’ to advance, but #2 Wisconsin has a game tomorrow against #7 Ohio State. OSU won Friday night before Wisconsin tied the series Saturday.

If Wisconsin takes care of business Sunday, the Badgers will host the Gophers in the semifinal. If Ohio State wins, though, Minnesota will host Michigan and OSU will travel to East Lansing to face the Spartans.

If the Gophers are able to pull off the Big Ten title victory, they’ll be positioning themselves for either a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament, or the #5 overall (the ‘best’ #2 seed). Minnesota would likely need help from either Denver or North Dakota in the NCHC playoffs to jump up into the top four of the Pairwise rankings.

Around the country, Omaha swept North Dakota this weekend to put themselves squarely in the mix for the NCAA tournament. Currently at #12 in the PWR, UNO is 78% to make the big dance per CHN’s Pairwise Probability Matrix. This matters because Omaha is the host of the Sioux Falls regional, which means that, if they were to make the tournament, they would have to be placed there. If Omaha ended up a #4 seed, the committee would either need to break the first-round conference matchups rule to place UND or DU in Sioux Falls, or they would need to send Boston University (or Minnesota in the event the Gophers earn a #1 seed) to Sioux Falls to face a “home team”.

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