The Minnesota Gophers men’s hockey team heads to their final regular season road series of the season this weekend trying to upset what has been a house of horrors of late. Minnesota will play a series at Penn State where their last win is literally five years to the date, February 18, 2017 in Hockey Valley. If Minnesota can come away with a sweep—erasing five seasons of bad karma, they could be looking at a chance to win a Big Ten regular season title next week. But if the Nittany Lions take another chuck out of the Gophers, well then it might be time to just plan for tournament time.
Minnesota comes into PSU on a four game winning streak sweeping back to back series for the first time all season. Last week they all but eliminated Ohio State from the Big Ten title chase, and this weekend they hope the Buckeyes can let bygones be bygones and do them a favor in Ann Arbor taking on conference leading Michigan. Minnesota trails the Wolverines by two points in the Big Ten standings with each team having four games left to play. Ohio State is just one point back of the Gophers, but they will end their regular season this weekend and will sit and watch next weekend. Minnesota comes home to host Wisconsin while Michigan heads to South bend to play Notre Dame.
But the Gophers need to worry about themselves first. Minnesota for whatever reason has has horrible success in Pegula Ice Arena, and it won’t be easy again this weekend. While the Nittany Lions are down from past years, it’s the final home series of the year for Penn State, they will be celebrating Senior Day on Saturday, and it’s the annual THON dance marathon weekend which always seems to whip their fans up into a frenzy. Thus the Gophers job is to cut through all the bluster and just play good hockey, something they did successfully last weekend in Columbus, and something they will need to do once the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments come around.
This weekend will also mark the final weekend the Gophers will be missing their three Olympians. While Brock Faber, Ben Meyers and Mathew Knies may be back in the country by the time the games face off this weekend, they will not make the trip and will get one last weekend to recover before returning at home next weekend. But Minnesota has been an impressive 4-0 without them and much of the credit belongs to the Gophers freshman line of Chaz Lucius, Aaron Hugelin and Rhett Pitlick. All three scored at least one goal last weekend with Pitlick earning Big Ten 2nd Star of the Week awards after a pair of goals and assists on the weekend. Add in some great defensive play by Carl Fish who has stepped up while Faber has been gone, and Minnesota has been able to use their depth to their advantage for the first time this season. That depth may get even greater as it sounds like senior center Jaxon Nelson is expected to return to the lineup this weekend after missing most of the last two months with an injury.
Of course much of the credit also needs to go to Gopher goaltender Justen Close. He stepped in after the loss of Jack LaFontaine and has actually played better than the reigning Mike Richter Award winner. Close has a 7-3-0 record in that time compiling a .924 save percentage and a 1.91 goals-against average. Close’s goals-against average now leads the Big Ten and ranks seventh in the nation while his save percentage is tied for third in the Big Ten and 11th in the nation. Close was added to the watch list for this season’s Richter Award despite just playing the second half of the season earlier this week.
As we said, Penn State has been down this season. They enter the weekend with just a 14-15-1 record and a 5-14-1 record in Big Ten play. They average 3.2 goals per game, and still play a high octane brand of offense, but have struggled defensively giving up 3.27 goals per game. Oskar Autio has played most of the games in net for the Nittany Lions, and played both games in the series against the Gophers in November where the two teams split. Special teams could be huge this weekend. Minnesota's power play has struggled of late, but Penn State’s penalty kill in Big Ten play has been atrocious. PSU is killing just 66% of their penalties in conference games. Minnesota needs to take advantage of that and out a few in the back of the net to earn the sweep they really could use.
Not a single player on this Gopher roster has ever won at Penn State. Only one player, Sam Rossini was on the team that lost four in a row to the Nittany Lions to close out the 2017-28 season that would cost the Gophers an NCAA Tournament berth. Rossini will need to see action in Friday’s game due to the fact that defenseman Ben Brinkman will be suspended for Friday’s game after an incident against Ohio State last Saturday. Maybe it’s just karma that Rossini can find the back of the net Friday night to see the Gophers snap the streak and right the ship?
HOW TO WATCH:
#5 Minnesota Gophers @ Penn State Nittany Lions
Where: Pegula Ice Arena, University Park, Pennsylvania
When: 5:30 PM Friday; 5:00 PM Saturday
TV: Big Ten Network
Stream: Fox Sports App
Radio: 1130 AM/103.5FM/IHeart Radio