FanPost

Expectations vs. Reality- Gophers Hockey vs. PSU

Gopher Athletics

GoAUpher: Nice look at the PSU series.

Sometimes when a series goes as expected, you can still be surprised.

Penn State played over their heads both Sunday and Monday, and had a couple well-played games from freshman goaltender Eamon McAdam. They played like crazy, which you would expect, what with them playing at home in front of the #1 team in the country. I was impressed by their speed and ability to go north and south with pace. They also have a couple of big boys that they can throw out there. They did a good job of getting out of their own defensive zone quickly, flying forwards out of the zone to push the Gopher's defensemen off the blue line and prevent a forecheck from taking hold in the zone. They missed a lot of these fly route passes, however, which resulted in lots of icing calls and face offs in their own zone.

Here’s the first thing I noticed from tonight’s game: Terry Pegula is not as rich as Ralph Engelstad once was. Pegula looks nice, but it doesn’t meet my expectations, which I based on all of the platitudes being tossed around. The best thing it has going is that there were 5,700 fans there to see a team with four wins on the season. It’s pretty clear that the team responds well to the atmosphere the fans create. They played two high intensity games and acquitted themselves well against a team with more talent stretched through the lineup.

I didn’t take in the Sunday game because I wasn’t going to pay CBS to watch it online. So I’ll have to jump right into Monday night’s game.

Completing the Sweep, Just Like We Planned. Sort Of.

It’s good to be a team playing in a very hostile environment, getting out-shot, out-skated, and out-bodied for most of the game and still walking away with a 5-2 win. It takes a knack for scoring to win games like this. That’s why it was especially nice to see Sam Warning pot two goals and Nate Condon pick up his first goal in a long while. They both broke huge goal droughts. If this team is going to continue winning in the conference, it will need Sam Warning to score like he did through the first quarter of the season. While I think it’s less critical that Nate Condon get on the board every game, anything he can contribute will be an obvious plus.

I was impressed with the play of Mike Reilly tonight. I always am impressed with his play, but there were a few moments in this game where he seemed like the only Gopher hustling on the ice. I specifically remember a play in the second period where four Gophers coasted out of the defense zone while Reilly danced around two forecheckers and eventually hit an open man in the neutral zone with a nice pass.

The other player I want to mention is Hudson Fasching. His puck skills are impressive. His hands are fast, soft, and he has a couple of deceptive moves to get around defenders. I think he probably has one more season ahead of him as a Gopher. He’ll need his goal totals to increase before he gets the call form L.A., but I certainly don’t see him as a four-year college player (I wish he would stay for four years; I wish they all would stay for four years).

The Game

The Gophers got out to a fast start, drawing an early penalty and converting on the game’s first power play less than three minutes in. A few days ago I opined that what the power play was missing was Nick Bjugstad to hammer in one-timers on over the goalie’s right shoulder. It looks like El Padrino (the Don) might have found a suitable player for that position in Travis Boyd. This game was the second in recent memory where Boyd scored on Bjugstad’s patented one-time play.

The power play is trending in the right direction. The puck movement was good, and the Gophers did a nice job of skating the puck down the blue line rather than throwing a rink-wide pass to the opposite point. The lateral skating movement repeatedly pulled the highest Penn State defender across the ice, leading to some nice looks after a pass back to the area that had just been vacated. It’s like cycling down low in the zone, only it’s high in the zone, you do it on the power play, and the Gohpers hadn’t done it all season. It was nice to see a point man have the ability to take a few unimpeded strides toward the goal before taking a shot.

The second aspect of the PP that has improved is the shot coming from the point after puck movement. We’re starting to see more wrist/snap shots and fewer huge-here-comes-the-wind-up-everyone-sees-it-let-the-defenders-get-in-position-and-now-we-swing slap shots straight into a defender’s legs. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy watching opponents limp to the bench after absorbing a slap shot as much as the next sadist, but I would rather see shots make it to the goalie’s pads, or past them. Call me crazy.

After the first goal quieted the arena, Penn State slowly swung momentum back the other direction and the crowd got back into things. The Nittany Lions finished the second half of the period strong, and the Gophers seemed to be on their heels a bit. With the excitement in the arena, and the Gopher’s inability to establish their forecheck, it seemed like this game could go south in a hurry.

Fortunately, Sam Warning’s one-timer on an odd man rush once again quieted the Peg (I’ve just decided to start calling it the Peg, I can’t believe I beat Penn State fans to it). Penn State would again tilt the ice toward the Gopher’s zone, and the Peg would come alive again. It’s a stupid cliché that a two goal lead is the most dangerous lead in hockey. Seriously, it’s a stupid cliché, unsupported by even a shred of data. Yet it’s spouted out by television commentators as some sort of hockey bible verse. That said, I can’t remember the last time I was this uneasy watching the Gophers play a team ranked near the bottom of the country while leading by two goals. It was just that type of night.

…Until Sam Warning struck again in the third. I believe the backhand is a lost art. All too often you see players take time to turn their whole bodies because they’re more comfortable shooting off the forehand. It gives defenders and goaltenders time to move into position, and a forehand shot it much easier for a goalie to track coming off the stick. Warning wasted no time in burying his backhand from the right circle past the sprawling Eamon McAdam. At that point, I knew this game was won.

Penn State would pot a goal to make the game 3-1 in the third, but Captain Condon’s drizzling goal 17 seconds later re-iced the game and took the air out of the arena again. The Nittany Lions would score on a low angle shot to move the score to 4-2, but then they did what bad teams generally do, and they took a stupid penalty with just over two minutes remaining. That penalty forced McAdam to remain in the net until there were only 32 seconds left in the game (just enough time for Justin Kloos to net his eighth goal of the year).

No, I Haven’t Forgotten About Wall-cox (and yes I know how to spell his name)

He just gets his own section. Adam Wilcox was outstanding tonight. He perfectly navigated the Penn State onslaught through the first two and a half periods, which allowed the Gophers to build a three goal lead despite being heavily outshot.

I don’t have an official shot chart from the game, but if I did I suspect a lot of the PSU shots would come from just inside the blue line. Despite being outshot, the Gophers certainly out-chanced the Nittany Lions, so not all the shots Wilcox faced had Grade A potential. However, Wilcox does an excellent job of controlling rebounds, so these routine saves never turned into more serious threats due to mishandling. The bomb-and-crash offense will not be effective against Wilcox. Of course, he also had a few "WOW" saves on some really good chances. It’s what we expect from him every game, which is why he’s started 99% of the games since last fall.

I was razzing Ben Clymer on the Twitter during this game for lots of reasons (mostly his inability to say anything bad about poor officiating or the play of the Gopher’s opponents [we get it, you’re impartial]). The most absurd thing was his response to this question "Adam Wilcox is so good in all aspects. What’s the one thing he needs to improve?" That’s not an exact quote, and here’s not exactly his answer: "I’d like to see him improve his puck control. It can really help out a defenseman if the goalie can set the play up down low."

Ben Clymer, I know you were asked to nitpick, but are you kidding me? Wilcox is probably one of the top three goaltenders in the country when it comes playing the puck away from the net. He makes plays like the one Clymer described probably ten times per game, if not more.

If I were asked to nitpick, I would probably say "he needs to improve just a little bit at keeping his body under control and maintaining good angles on the puck during odd man rushes. He sometimes gets a little out of the box, somewhat like Dominik Hasek." You know you’re doing something right when someone tries to nitpick and ends up comparing you to Dominik Hasek.

Implications

This was a good series for the Gophers for a variety of reasons. Here they are, quick-fire style:

Two road wins count for 1.2 wins each in the RPI. Keeping that RPI high is all that’s standing between the Gopher’s current #1 Pairwise position and four of the next five teams on the list: Ferris State, Quinnipiac, and St. Cloud State. The only "safe" comparison in the top five is against Boston College due to the Gopher’s win and tie in the head-to-head series. I hope to really get into this topic later in the week, so I won’t add more today.

Two road wins count for six points in the conference standings, effectively eliminating Penn State from contention for the regular season title (I’m sorry Penn State fans, a ten point conference deficit to the league leader after games in-hand will not be overcome this season) and putting the Gophers four points ahead of Wisconsin and Michigan (games in hand). The top three teams and the bottom three seem to have stratified rather quickly.

With a young team, the most difficult games are on the road in a loud hostile environment. I won’t say that the Gophers played great in this series, but they took care of business. I hope this series gives them confidence to go on the road for the rest of the conference schedule. While the Kohl Center will surely be empty (as usual), you know Michigan will fill the Arena. This was a good warmup series.

What did you think of the sweep, Gopher Fans?

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