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Minnesota Hockey: Gophers three game win streak ends with 4-2 loss to Penn State in series opener

The Gophers came out sloppy in the first period and gave up too many quality chances throughout the game

Matt Krohn

MINNEAPOLIS — Christian Sarlo came out of the box, grabbed the puck along the boards after a teammate passed it up the ice and he patiently held the puck in the right circle until Jackson LaCombe fell to the ice, giving Sarlo all the space in the world to find the back of the net after Justen Close tried to cut the angle at the top of the crease.

The goal occurred with 5.8 seconds left in the middle frame that gave the Penn State Littany Lions a 2-1 lead heading into the third period. But it also proved to be the moment the No. 1-ranked Minnesota Gophers — with the momentum in their favor — let the game slip away in their 4-2 loss to the No. 8 Littany Lions on Thursday night at 3M Arena at Mariucci that also ended their three-game winning streak.

After all, the Gophers recovered in the second after a sloppy first period that saw them unable to connect passes, win puck battles, generate any offense or limit Penn State from getting high danger chances.

In the end, it wasn’t just one mistake at the end of the second period that led to the loss, but it did shift the momentum in Penn State’s favor. It took the Littany Lions and Connor MacEachern just 48 seconds into the third period to score again and take a commanding 3-1 lead.

MacEachern sniped one past Close glove side from the high slot for his second goal of the game, which was the epitome of the game: the Gophers allowed too much quality in the slot and in tight at the wrong times against Penn State, who came into the game with a 9-1 record and Big Ten lead in shots per game.

“That’s Penn State, that’s what they do, they’re old, they’re a great hockey team,” Gophers captain Brock Faber said on whether they gave up too many quality chances. “The cute stuff, toe drags, slip throughs, trying to beat guys at one on one, that’s not going to work against them. As soon as you make those turnovers, that’s when they pounce on it. I think we just gave up too much, top to bottom, forwards, D. We all need to improve and need to be better tomorrow night.”

Case in point: the Gophers handed the Littany Lions a 2-on-1 odd man rush in the first period that led to the game’s first goal.

The goal was a textbook 2-on-1 play. It was a perfect one-timer that Close had no chance of saving and Jackson LaCombe probably should have tightened the gap there. And it was a great example of the Gophers allowing an uncharacteristically amount of odd man rushes — including several in the opening period.

“You can’t play them for 35 to 38 minutes. That’s all we played tonight. We did not play well those other minutes,” Gophers head coach Bob Motzko said. ... “It was a tale of two games. You get off to a slow start, we were a little frustrated, we found it in the second period and unfortunately we handed them two goals. You can’t do that.”

The Gophers need to address their first period struggles because they came up short despite putting on pressure and generating some good looks in the third period.

“We did the opposite of our strengths,” Faber said of the first period. “We were trying to play cute. We were trying to play slow. We weren’t physical enough. We weren’t ready to go tonight.”

The Gophers offensive attack came in spurts and they had a chance to climb out of the whole in the third period when Aaron Hughlen — the third star of the game — was finally rewarded for his solid play all season with his first goal of the 2022-23 campaign that cut Penn State’s lead in half.

Huglen’s goal that got past Penn State’s Liam Souliere glove side was reviewed for being offsides, but the goal was deemed onside.

“It’s obviously been a long time, so it felt really good,” Hughlen said.

Despite putting pressure on them in the third, it just wasn’t enough to rally back Penn State, who scored an empty net goal with 18 seconds left in the game.

As Faber put it, it wasn’t their night. Even the dangerous scoring trio of Matthew Knies, Logan Cooley and Jimmy Snuggerud didn’t create much of anything for the Gophers, something Motzko said was because “they were slowing themselves down.”

Although Cooley did help Minnesota respond in the middle frame with a nifty dangle on the offensive zone entry before feeding the puck to Bryce Brodzinski, who beat Souliere glove side from the left circle.

It’s difficult to blame Close — who stopped 27 of 30 — on any of the goals because of the Gophers inability to keep the Littany Lions away from prime scoring areas, and he ultimately gave the team a chance with some big-time stops.

“I thought he gave us a chance tonight,” Motzko said. “We hung him out to dry on the goals for crying out loud.”

That was especially true in the first period.

The Gophers will look to respond Friday night where they will need to tighten up defensively if they want to get past Penn State.

“We all have to take a good look in the mirror tonight after that one,” Faber said. “That was a tough one.”