The Minnesota Golden Gophers hockey team jumps back into the first of eight straight weeks of Big Ten play when they host #9 Penn State Nittany Lions at Mariucci Arena this weekend. The Gophers will look to keep pace in the Big Ten conference where they currently sit in fourth place with 12 points—one ahead of their opponents this weekend. But it will not be easy against the #1 offense in the nation that the Nittany Lions will bring to town.
The Gophers are coming off of a split at home against Ferris State last weekend. Minnesota won Friday night’s game 5-3 behind a hat trick by sophomore Scott Reedy but once again struggled to beat a team they really should have in losing 3-2 on Saturday. It was Ferris State’s first road win on the season, and a loss that really hurts Minnesota in the pairwise.
That all is moot if the Gophers can take care of business in the Big Ten, which of course is a big ask. That’s why this weekend while still “early” in the race for the conference is big.
The Nittany Lions come in fresh off of their holiday break. They have not played since a 4-4 time with Princeton on December 15th. Minnesota hopes that their high powered offense might be a bit rusty. The Nittany Lions lead the nation in scoring averaging 5.22 goals per game which is over a goal more than the next team. They average nearly 41 shots on goal per game and lead the country in goals, points, and assists. Minnesota will catch a small break however as two of the Nittany Lions offensive stars will be missing the series. Sopomore Evan Barratt and freshman Aarne Talvitie are both still playing in the World Junior Championships for the US and Finland respectively. Barratt is a big blow for the Nittany Lions as his 29 points was leading the nation after the first half of the season.
Penn State still has fire power in bunches. Fellow sophomore Alex Limgoes also has 29 points on the season and leads the nation with 19 assists. The Nittany Lions still have their Russian duo in Nikita Pavlychev and Dennis Smirnov who killed the Gophers en route to Penn State taking five out of six games from the Gophers in 2017-18.
PSU also returns Peyton Jones in net. He has a 3.38 goals against average and a .901% save percentage entering this weekend. Chris Funkey has started six games this season but his stats are not much better with a GAA of 3.72 and a save percentage of .876.
So the opportunity for Minnesota to score goals is there this weekend. Maybe they can finally stop struggling and find a way to put plenty of pucks in the net. And maybe I’ll win the lottery too. Rem Pitlick leads the Gophers with 17 points on the season and has had success against the Nittany Lions in his career. He has 16 career points against PSU in 11 career games. He also told the Star Tribune earlier this week that he “Hates Penn State” —so maybe he will be really motivated this weekend.
In net the Gophers probably will go with a split of Eric Schierhorn and Mat Robson. Neither has been exceptional this year, but Schierhorn has looked decent recently with a 2.11 goals against average and a save percentage of 91.1%. Both goalies will need to stand on their heads repeatedly if the defense continues to struggle as it has for most of the season.
Minnesota has been a much better team in conference play this season. For the complete season Minnesota has killed 84% of their penalties, while in Big Ten play it has been 94%. Same on the power play where their success rate is 26% in Big ten play compared to 22% in all games. Keeping those numbers high will be massive this weekend.
All in all Minnesota needs at bare minimum a split this weekend, and a sweep would be great. It will not be easy and they will probably need their goalie to steal them at least one game if not both. But it will be exciting up and down hockey that’s for sure.
HOW TO WATCH
#9 Penn State Nittany Lions @ Minnesota Golden Gophers
Where: Mariucci Arena, Minneapolis, Minnesota
When: 8PM Friday, 7PM Saturday
TV: ESPNU (Friday), Fox Sports North (Saturday)
Radio: 1130 AM, 103.5 FM IHeart Radio App