Key Upperclassmen Power Minnesota to Victories
Minneapolis, MN – Cast your minds back, if you will, to late February.
After a miserable first half of the season, the Gophers fought back to a 9-2-1 record since the Christmas break and had actually put themselves in position to win the Big Ten regular season title.
Then, Penn State came to town, winning 5 of 6 points and securing their own conference title. Minnesota sputtered to the finish, winning only one point at Michigan the next weekend before heading into the Big Ten tourney as a middle-of-the-pack team in the conference.
In the first round of the tournament, the Gophers won a hard-fought series in three games against Notre Dame, and were set to play in a one-game semifinal the following weekend in Happy Valley, against the same Penn State squad that had beaten the Gophers to the tune of 20 goals to 10 over four games during the season. There was a palpable sense of payback, of unfinished business with this PSU team that had so thoroughly manhandled a young Gopher group earlier in the season.
Then, the world changed. The Big Ten canceled the remainder of the tournament, the NCAA canceled the whole postseason, and the young Gophers that had grown into a contender were halted in their tracks, having to wait until who knows when to try and get that revenge against the Nittany Lions.
Eight long months later, they got their chance.
With perhaps a bit more than points on the line this weekend, Minnesota (2-0-0 Overall, 2-0-0-0 B1G) swept their opening two-game series against Penn State (0-2-0, 0-2-0-0), showing a lot of the reasons why the Gophers were picked by the Big Ten coaches to win the league.
Minnesota returned 87.2% of their point scoring from last season (the most in the nation), and that veteran scoring featured prominently against the Nittany Lions. The Gophers got goals from each of their senior forwards over the weekend: Scott Reedy scored a goal in each game, while Cullen Munson scored a key separation goal Thursday and Brannon McManus scored the game winning powerplay goal on Friday. Sophomore Jonny Sorenson scored the first Gopher goal of the season Thursday evening, while juniors Sammy Walker and Sampo Ranta each potted goals over the weekend to power Minnesota to victory.
COVID-19 has condensed and upended the 2020-2021 schedule, meaning that the Gophers will be playing at some unusual times and on some unusual days this year. Minnesota started its season on Thursday night, and didn’t really get rolling until the second period. Sorenson put Minnesota ahead 1-0 5:22 into the middle frame, and Reedy gave the Gophers a two-goal cushion at 10:16.
Penn State’s Kevin Wall scored with under a minute left in the period to give the Nittany Lions some life, but the Gophers pulled away in the third, with Munson scoring a scrappy goal at 3:53 and Ranta scoring an absolute beauty at 10:43, to end the scoring at 4-1.
This game could have been a bit more lopsided in the Gophers’ favor if not for a nice effort in net from Penn State’s Oskar Autio. Autio made some big saves to keep the Nittany Lions in the game as long as he could.
Autio’s opposite number Jack LaFontaine got the first win of the year in net for the Gophers Thursday, and earned the start in net again on Friday afternoon for the rubber match.
Minnesota got on the board first again on Friday, this time in the first period, as Scott Reedy redirected a puck in front of the net and past new Nittany Lion goalie Liam Souliere at 4:34. Penn State scored an equalizer at 17:31, but Sammy Walker scored a go-ahead goal with just 0.8 seconds remaining in the first to swing the momentum Minnesota’s way with a 2-1 lead heading into the first intermission.
A mostly cagey second period saw Brannon McManus score the only goal, a snipe on the powerplay at 13:28 to put Minnesota up by two goals at 3-1.
Kevin Wall scored a shallow-angle goal to draw Penn State within one at 4:41 of the third, and the Gophers took a couple late penalties to give the Nittany Lions a chance, but Jack LaFontaine and the Gopher defense was up to the task, icing out the game and the series sweep with a 3-2 win.
The strange 20-21 season continues in just a few days, as the Gophers play host to the #9 Ohio State Buckeyes next Monday and Tuesday (11/23-24), before taking a mini-break over Thanksgiving, and then traveling to East Lansing Thursday, December 3rd to battle the Michigan State Spartans in a two-game set.
20-21 captains: C Sammy Walker, A’s McManus, LaFontaine, and Ben Meyers
New Gopher freshmen are defensemen #6 Mike Koster (pronounced KESS-tur), #14 Brock Faber, and #26 Carl Fish, along with forward #18 Mason Nevers. Koster and Faber played regular minutes alongside Jackson LaCombe, Ryan Johnson, Ben Brinkman and Matt Staudacher on defense, while Nevers played a few shifts as an extra skater and Carl Fish was in street clothes both nights.