The Minnesota Golden Gophers Hockey team plays their last regular season road series of the year this weekend when they head to Penn State to play the Nittany Lions. Minnesota and Penn State are currently tied for first place in the Big Ten with 36 points each, and this weekend will go a long ways to determine who will win the Big Ten regular season title. Minnesota will need to turn around what has been a tidal wave of negativity against the Nittany Lions if they want to place themselves in a good spot to potentially win the title next week. It will not be easy.
The Gophers earned a huge five point weekend last weekend in South Bend against Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Minnesota got a shootout win on Friday night on the stick of Brannon McManus, and then earned a 2-1 win with Blake McLaughlin scoring the game winning goal in the third period on Saturday night. McLaughlin was named the Big Ten’s #2 Star of the Week after scoring two goals and adding an assist to help the Gophers into the tie for first place with the Nittany Lions.
Jack Lafontaine got both starts in net for the Gophers against the Irish and performed well. Jared Moe had played most of the previous three games, so it will be interesting to see who Bob Motzko goes with in net this weekend. I would expect LaFontaine might get the start on Friday with Saturday’s starter to be determined. Both goalies picked up a loss each in the series with Penn State in Minneapolis in November.
Minnesota will look to try and end what has been a very negative trend when the Gophers and Nittany Lions get together, especially in Pennsylvania. Minnesota has a 15-14 all-time series lead against Penn State, but since PSU beat the Gophers 4-3 in double overtime in the Big Ten semifinal in Detroit in March of 2017 the Nittany Lions have gone 9-2 over the Gophers including 6-0 at home over the last two seasons. Penn State earned their first ever sweep in Minneapolis when they ran the Gophers out of their own building back in November with 8-2 and 6-3 wins that frankly weren’t that close. If the Gophers want to prove that things have changed in the second half of the season, this is the weekend where the rubber meets the road.
Penn State enters the weekend coming off of a tough series against last place Wisconsin in Madison. The Badgers helped Minnesota winning on Friday night before the Nittany Lions battled back for a one goal win on Saturday. The Nittany Lions need to pick up a pair of wins even more than the Gophers do this weekend as this is the final series of their regular season. They are idle next weekend and easily could fall behind Minnesota and several other teams if the Gophers can take it to them this weekend.
Penn State still has one of the best offenses in the nation. The Nittany Lions lead the Big Ten averaging 3.59 goals per game. This has allowed PSU to have a balanced scoring attack. Five players are in double figures in goals this season for the Lions with Sam Sternschein leading the way with 12. Minnesota has been tormented the last few seasons by the Nittany Lions upperclassmen. The BFL line of Evan Barratt, Liam Folkes and Alex Limoges has dominated Minnesota with Limoges leading the way with 16 points against Minnesota in the last three seasons. Add in seven goals each against Minnesota from seniors Denis Smirnov and Nate Sucese and you can see why the Gophers have been run out of the rink on repeated occasions against the Lions.
Penn State’s senior class of ten members will be honored this weekend, and anchoring that class will be goalie Peyton Jones. Jones has a 2.61 GAA and a .920 save percentage this season in anchoring the Penn State net. He obviously has been a Gopher killer as well over the last two seasons racking up nine wins over Minnesota in the last three seasons.
The Gophers will close with a pair of games at home against Michigan next weekend. The Wolverines currently sit in third place in the conference three points behind Minnesota and Penn State. They will play a home series against Notre Dame this weekend that also will have large implications on the conference title race. Meanwhile Michigan State and Ohio State who currently are tied for fourth place with 31 points, five back of the leaders also play a huge series this weekend that may end up determining who has the inside shot at the final home ice spot in the Big Ten Tournament. There still is a ton that can change over the next two weekends, so Minnesota just needs to take care of their business and get ready to control their own destiny.
On top of the Big Ten implications, this weekend will go a long way to determining if Minnesota will have any chance at an NCAA at-large bid. According to the most recent projections from Jim Dahl at College Hockey ranked, the Gophers most likely need at minimum three wins in their last four regular season games to have a legitimate chance at an at-large bid.
If Minnesota goes 0-4 down the stretch, the at-large bid is long gone, and in fact they probably will end up on the road for the Big Ten Tournament. Win one game and their max potential pairwise is still outside of the tournament field. Once again its win to get in. Go 2-2 and the situation is the same. They will get up to bubble range but should be on the wrong side of it. Gonna need a Big Ten tournament run to get in.
If Minnesota can go 3-1, then things get very interesting. The Gophers would likely end up anywhere between 12-14 which once again could be right on the bubble. But, hopefully on the right side of the bubble. In this situation Minnesota would win the Big Ten, get a first round bye and still might need to win a home Big Ten semifinal game to feel completely safe. If somehow the Gophers would win out and go 4-0, they obviously win the Big Ten and move up to the 9-11 rank where all of a sudden instead of talking if they get in we talk about seeding.
Thus seeing these numbers Minnesota NEEDS at bare minimum a split this weekend. That would allow Minnesota to control their own destiny next weekend against the Wolverines for the Big Ten title, and presumably for an at-large bid possibility. A Gopher sweep and things are sitting pretty. A Penn State sweep and the at-large is gone, and the best you can do is tie for the conference title, which Penn State would get the #1 seed in due to the 4-0 head to head record. So, just win at least one game this weekend. Obviously a sweep is the goal, but a split is the bare minimum to make next weekend have the potential to be the most exciting weekend of hockey the Gophers have played at home in several seasons. It will not be easy. Pegula has been an absolute horror show for the Gophers the last two seasons. Minnesota went there just needed one win the final week of the season in 2018 to get a home playoff series....and promptly lost four in a row to end their season. It’s time to put that all in the past and figure out a way to get it done.
HOW TO WATCH:
#18 Minnesota Golden Gophers @ #10/11 Penn State Nittany Lions
Where: Pegula Ice Arena, University Park, Pennsylvania
When: 7:30 Friday; 5:30 Saturday
TV: Big Ten Network
Stream: Fox Sports App
Radio 1130AM/103.5FM/ IHeart Radio App