After a weekend off earned by virtue of winning the Big Ten Regular Season Championship, the Minnesota Gophers hockey team retakes the ice Saturday night in a Big Ten semifinal game against Penn State at 3M Arena at Mariucci. Minnesota will look to advance to the Big Ten Championship game for the second consecutive season, and this time with a win they won’t need to leave the friendly confines of their home rink. But first they will need to get past a plucky Penn State Nittany Lions team that has dashed the Gophers dreams on more than one occasion.
Minnesota expected that they would most likely see Ohio State in their semifinal game on Friday, but Penn State would upset the Buckeyes in three games last weekend in Columbus to advance to Saturday night’s game. The Nittany Lions dropped a 4-3 game on Friday night before battling back to pick up 3-2 and 2-1 wins on Saturday and Sunday. Liam Souliere has taken over the net for the Nittany Lions and he came up big in the two wins over the Buckeyes. He has been on a roll down the stretch and has given up two or less goals in eight of his 14 starts this season including six of the last 10 and is 6-1-1 when allowing two or less goals on the year. One of those games was late in the regular season between the Gophers and Penn State where Souliere only gave up a pair of goals but Minnesota still earned a 3-1 win adding an empty net goal late. Oskar Autio played the other three games in get for the Nittany Lions against Minnesota this season going 1-2.
In November the two teams split a series in Minneapolis with the Lions winning 5-3 on Friday and then dropping a 4-2 game on Saturday. Minnesota swept the Nittany Lions in Hockey Valley in February in the Justen Close era getting the 3-1 win on Friday before earning a 6-4 win on Saturday. That game is the most memorable between those two teams this season as Penn State took a 3-0 lead early in the first period before the Gophers came roaring back cutting the lead to 4-3 after two periods and scoring three unanswered in the third to earn the win. It was the first real adversity that Minnesota had faced in the Justen Close era, and the Gophers fought back and it was key in their Big Ten winning eight game winning stretch.
Minnesota will have nearly a full roster back for Saturday night’s game. The Gophers are still missing freshman Chaz Lucius who supposedly has a foot injury. He has not played since the Gophers series at Penn State in February. The Gophers will look to rely on several of their Big Ten award finalists to get them through to the next round. Ben Meyers was named a finalist for Big Ten Player of the Year, Brock Faber a finalist for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Justen Close a finalist for Big Ten Goalie of the Year, and Mathew Knies a finalist for Big Ten Freshman of the Year. The award winners along with the All-Big Ten teams will be announced next week, but the trio of Gopher Olympians have been key for the Gophers before and after they have returned and Minnesota will look to ride them down the final stretch of the season.
The elephant in the room is Minnesota’s postseason history against the Nittany Lions. Minnesota is 10-7 all-time in the Big Ten playoffs, but are 0-3 all time against Penn State in the postseason. The Nittany Lions defeated the Gophers 4-3 in an epic double overtime game in the Big Ten semifinals in 2017, and then PSU swept the Gophers in the quarterfinals in 2018. Both of those losses came under Don Lucia, and since Bob Motzko has taken over Minnesota is 7-2 in the conference tournament including winning three straight to win it all a year ago. This also works karma wise as it is nearly to years to the day to what would have been a Big Ten semifinal between these two teams at Penn State in 2020. That came of course became the first of what would be several COVID casualties, and both teams will have the chance to knock all those memories away come Saturday night.
Minnesota will need to come out fast. When the Gophers have struggled they have come out slow to open the game and suddenly their opponent has jumped out to a multiple goal lead. The Gophers overcame this in the final regular season game between these two teams, but with Souliere in net this Nittany Lions team plays a much different game. This most likely will not be the 6-4 shootout type game but will be much closer where a single mistake could be the difference between one final home game on the season, or a week off to sit and await the NCAA Tournament pairings. Bob Motzko in his media availability said earlier in the week he was not a fan of the bye for the first place team. He felt the Gophers looked flat in practice at the end of last week but seemed to get much more crisp this week. That is the team that needs to come out Saturday night. Jump out to a nice lead and play from ahead, not try and play from behind. Try and get a nice comfortable win and get ready to host either Notre Dame or Michigan with a chance to hang banner #2 on the season next weekend. Minnesota is the better team, they need to play like it and show why they can be a threat to potentially get back to the NCAA Frozen Four for the first time since 2014.
HOW TO WATCH—BIG TEN SEMIFINAL
#5 Penn State @ #1 Minnesota Gophers
Where: 3M Arena at Mariucci, Minneapolis, Minnesota
When: 8 PM Saturday
TV: Big Ten Network
Stream: Fox Sports App
Radio: 1130 AM/103.5 FM/ I Heart Radio