You can pinch yourself. It’s real. It’s really happening. The 100th season of Minnesota Golden Gophers hockey does in fact begin tonight against the Penn State Nittany Lions at 3M at Mariucci Arena. College hockey in Minnesota is back!
The wait is over. pic.twitter.com/X4AZd2pKGv— Minnesota Men’s Hockey (@GopherHockey) November 19, 2020
Of course it’s going to be a very weird season. No normal fans will be allowed. In fact after this series against Penn State under the new MN COVID restrictions even the players parents won’t be allowed in...at least until potentially 2021. But just like having football back got some people out of the funk, the hope is that as the US slides back deeper into another wave of COVID related funk that the college hockey season, and soon the college basketball season might be able to provide some entertainment to get people over the hump.
So Tell Me About the Gophers:
Tonight is the first step towards that for a program that hopefully will be able to live up to preseason expectations. The Gophers come in to the season as the preseason coaches favorite to win the Big Ten. Minnesota returns it’s top six scorers and nine of it’s top ten from a season ago where they finished just three points out of first place in the conference. They Gophers return both goaltenders from a year ago who split time. The depth is there, now they just need to live up to the potential.
Minnesota is led up front by a trio of juniors in Sammy Walker, Blake McLaughlin and Sampo Ranta. Walker lead the team a season ago with 30 points and is the biggest scoring threat on the Gopher team due to his combination of skill and speed. Ranta and McLaughlin are both coming off of career years and will look to take another step forward in 2020-21. The Gophers second line is nearly as deadly. Sophomore Ben Meyers likely will center a pair of seniors in Scott Reedy and Brannon McManus. Meyers was a finalist for the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award a season ago while both of the seniors had career junior years with Reedy leading the team in goals with 15.
On the blue line Minnesota returns a trio of talented sophomores and adds a pair of freshman who will hopefully make an immediate impact. Jackson LaCombe, Ryan Johnson and Matt Staudacher all had fairly good freshman seasons and will be looked to anchor a very young but talented group of defensemen. LaCombe was an All-Big Ten freshman team selection a season ago and was named to the preseason All-Big Ten second team this year. His mix of offensive talent but yet shut down defensive capabilities is valuable. Freshmen Brock Faber and Mike Koster both would appear to step right into this Gopher lineup. Faber was a second round NHL draft pick this summer and has a valuable set of offensive skills that not many of the other Gopher defenders have. Koster also has been a very skilled d-man with the puck and can provide a different look for opposing teams.
Minnesota will most likely start the season once again by platooning their top two goalies. Senior Jack LaFontaine ended the season as the #1 a year ago and was named an assistant captain of this year’s team. Expect him to get the start on Thursday night for Minnesota. Sophomore Jared Moe also impressed as a freshman for Minnesota and was named to the Big-Ten All-freshman team. He will most likely get the start Friday afternoon.
What About Penn State?
The Nittany Lions are a team that come in this weekend being evaluated very differently by different groups of people. The Big Ten coaches predicted the Lions to go from winning the conference a year ago to finishing in last place this season. Yet, Penn State is currently ranked #10/9 in the national polls. So who will be right?
A lot will depend on how quickly Penn State’s newcomers can figure out college hockey. Penn State lost a ton from their Big Ten winning squad a season ago. Eleven players from last season’s team are gone—nine to graduation and two as early departures to the pros. Most of those players were impact players—Penn State has lost 57% of it’s production from a season ago compared to just 7% for Minnesota.
Penn State lost six of their top eight forwards from 2019-20 and will need to find some new names to light the lamp. But the two top forwards that do return are dangerous. Alex Limoges and Aarne Talvitie will be the wings on the top line for PSU and will most likely be centered by a transfer from Maine named Tim Doherty. All three are major threats to score with Limoges earning All-Big Ten First team honors a season ago and preseason honors this fall. Doherty was quite productive at Maine recording 37 points a season ago and should fit in well with a high octane offense.
Penn State will also have to replace half of their defensive corps from a season ago. However, the Lions do return one of their strongest players in Paul DeNaples. The junior is more of the shut down defensive type rather than the explosive offensive type, but he is very good at what he does and is a career +49 in 73 games for the Nittany Lions. Minnesota will also see a familiar face in former Gopher Clayton Phillips who may be elevated to one of the top two defensive pairings this season.
Where Penn State may have the biggest change will be in the net. Four year starter Peyton Jones is gone leaving a huge void to be filled. The frontrunner to win the starting job is junior Oskar Autio who served as the primary backup the last two season. Autio has had success in his limited action posting a .930 save percentage and a 1.87 goals against average over eight games. Behind Autio will be a true freshman in Liam Soulière, so there are definitely lots of question marks here.
So How do the Teams Match Up?
Penn State has been Minnesota’s Waterloo for most of the last few seasons, but most of the players who have created so much pain for the Gophers have moved on. We all know Penn State will play a high octane offensive game and will look to put as many pucks on the net as possible. Gopher goalie Jack LaFontaine set a career high in saves with 54 in one game against the Lions last season. It will be up to Minnesota’s more experienced team to negate a lot of what Penn State likes to do and then to make plays in transition. Many of the Gophers goals against the Nittany Lions in recent memory have come on breakout rushes down the ice taking advantage of a blocked shot or quick rebound clear. The Gophers do have the team speed to allow them to keep trying to do this especially with their top line.
Minnesota will need to take advantage of the experience and chemistry they already have and take advantage of a youthful roster for PSU. The Gophers main advantage especially in this weird season should be their cohesiveness. They know how their teammates like to play and can take advantage of other teams that need to learn how to play together. With no fans in the building to feed off of it will be important for teams to try and create their own energy. While Minnesota did seem to struggle with that at times towards the end of the year last season, they do unfortunately have more experience than a lot of teams playing in front of limited crowds. Hopefully they can once again use that to their advantage and give the fans all watching at home something to get excited about in front of their TVs.
According to Minnesota coach Bob Motzko the Gophers will wear their new 100th Anniversary sweaters at least once this weekend as well—so be on the look out for those.
HOW TO WATCH:
#9/10 Penn State Nittany Lions @ #11 Minnesota Golden Gophers
Where: 3M Arena at Mariucci, Minneapolis, MN
When: 7:30 PM Thursday/ 3:00 PM Friday
Stream: Fox Sports App
Radio: 1130 AM/ 103.5 FM/ I Heart Radio App