Weekend mission accomplished. Minnesota converted their six points-in-hand over Wisconsin and pushed their lead on the conference table back to seven points.
The Gophers came into the weekend after an off weekend, so they hadn’t played in essentially two weeks. A little rust showed early, and Penn State briefly led after an early goal by freshman Kenny Brooks on the power play. After that lapse, the game was all Gophers.
Penn State had the better side of the play for the first five minutes, but that all changed with a strong physical play by the Gophers. Four and one half minutes into the period, Penn State freshman defender David Thompson ran into the freight train that is Gopher Captain Kyle Rau behind the Penn State net. Rau is 5’8" and 173 pounds, but that didn’t stop him from blasting Thompson, who is 6’2" and 217 pounds, up off his skates and into the end wall.
The turnover Rau created almost set Warning up on the door step and led to the first sustained pressure the Gophers held in the game. Three minutes later, Thompson would attempt a long pass across his defensive zone that Mike Reilly would intercept and feed to Sam Warning, who tied the game on a wrist shot from the top of the circle.
Shortly after Warning’s goal, Minnesota freshman Gabe Guertler took the physicality cue from Rau and blew up a Penn State breakout by leveling senior Michal McDonagh. After the hit, the Gophers transitioned back into the offensive zone. Minnesota would sustain consistent offensive pressure for the next couple of minutes until Hudson Fasching tapped in a goal to give the Gophers the lead.
That goal followed a crazy scrum in front of Penn State goaltender Matthew Skoff that featured all five Penn State skaters clogging up the goal mouth, and three Minnesota forwards controlling the puck and pouring on the pressure with Mike Reilly supporting in the slot. Eventually, the puck would find its way over Skoff’s shoulder and Fasching would tap it with his hand down to his stick and then into the net.
The rest of the game was notable for the way Penn State went into a shell. They seemed to concede that this was not their night and just played out the game as a formality. Their effort in the first five to eight minutes of the game was excellent. After the second goal, they were weak on their skates, and continued to skate through the neutral zone with their heads down (not the way you’re supposed to).
Their weak skating resulted in a five consecutive penalties being assessed to the Gophers. Yes, that’s a critique of the officiating. Nittany Lion bodies were hitting the ice and lying slumped as if injured, after the slightest contact, even when they initiated the contact in the first place. It was as if they had taken Gordon Bombay’s advice in the first half of the Mighty Ducks, just keep diving. The stretch of power plays that the officials gifted to his team didn’t stop Coach Guy Gadowski from complaining to referee Stephen McInchak between periods.
Minnesota took advantage of Penn State’s disinterest and scored three more goals. Rau would close the scoring in the first period by burying a great pass from Hudson Fasching, who was actually in a breakaway when he made the pass. The nifty drop found its way to Rau’s stick through three defenders.
The Gophers should have scored a fourth goal in the period, but Referee McInchak had an early whistle and waived off a goal, despite the puck clearly crossing the goal line and never being in Skoff’s control. McInchak was in perfect position to make the correct call (a goal), but made a mistake. Mistakes are human, but what’s inexcusable is that after the video review he didn’t correct his mistake. Yes, the rule states the play is dead when the referee has intent to blow the whistle, but that just gives McInchak more latitude to correct his mistake in this situation, which he chose to not do.
Freshman Taylor Cammarata would notch a power play goal on a one-timer thirty seconds into the second period off a great feed from Travis Boyd on the other side of the ice. That goal was really the dagger, because if Penn State had any hope of winning the period and getting back into the game, that hope disappeared in less than a minute.
Through the game, it was pretty obvious from the way Nate Condon played that he was determined to get a goal in his final series at Mariucci. He looked to shoot each time he touched the puck, and drove to the net repeatedly. He scored the Minnesota’s first short-handed goal of the year by poking the puck away from a defender and breaking down the right side of the ice. He finished it by sniping a wrist shot past Skoff on the blocker side. Condon had Seth Ambroz in front of the net in support, but I think everyone knew that Condon was shooting, despite the two on one break.
Adam Wilcox had yet another strong performance, allowing only the first period goal and making thirty saves on the night.
The Gophers would cruise to an easy 5-1 win.
In a ve ry classy move Saturday night, the Don would start senior goaltender Michael Shibrowski. With Wilcox’s consistent brilliance since early last year, playing time for Shibrowski evaporated. Despite having his playing time evaporate, the upperclassman remained a leader on the team, and I’m sure that all the Gophers were happy Shibby got a chance.
Shibrowski would play well, making 25 saves and limiting Penn State to one goal.
Travis Boyd would open the scoring for Minnesota in the first period. Boyd made a nice move on the goal line to go from the left side of the crease to the right side with control of the puck. Penn State goaltender PJ Musico made a nice save on Boyd’s initial shot, but his sprawling motion left the top of the net wide open for Boyd to put away his own rebound.
The teams continued to battle evenly until late in the second period, when Curtis Loik picked up a bouncing pass as he entered the zone and snapped a shot over Shibrowski’s shoulder. On the play, Michael Brodzinski didn’t play the bouncing pass very well; it skipped over his stick before Loik scooped it up. It’s a play that a defender should make with his body rather than the blade of his stick.
That goal made things a lot more interesting than the Gophers would have liked. Minnesota didn’t put a shot on net in the third period until around the eight minute mark. After that, they would pour fifteen shots on net, desperately trying to break the tie. Musico played a very good game, making 35 saves on 37 shots, and proved that a hot goalie can take a team far, but it wouldn’t be enough for Penn State to steal any points.
Senior Tom Serratore put the Gophers ahead with a spinning slap past Musico’s glove. An elated Serratore jumped into fellow junior Ben Marshall’s arms on the celebration. It was a great Senior Night goal by a senior who’s not known for scoring.
This was an important weekend series, despite the lack of a quality opponent, and two important goals were accomplished. First, Minnesota’s lead over Wisconsin was extended back to seven points. The Magic Number for the conference title was reduced to two Gopher wins or two Wisconsin losses. The Gophers are all but guaranteed a first-round bye in the conference tournament. A single Gopher Victory or Michigan loss will assure that.
The second goal that was accomplished was to retake the #1 RPI ranking from Boston College, which gives Minnesota the #1 position in the Pairwise rankings as well. As I’ve covered in prior articles, the tournament selection committee will play with the regionals to improve attendance, even though that jiggering destroys the integrity of the tournament bracket.
Having the #1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament guarantees that the #16 team is your first round opponent (that’s just how the committee operates). Locking two teams into the West regional reduces the number of options the committee has to tweak the regionals. This is a long way of saying that if the Gophers can hold on to that #1 overall seed, they will have a fairer regional than we’ve seen in the recent projections for the tournament.