Like many hockey coaches, Bob Motzko subscribes to the theory that the first team to score three goals in a game usually wins. That has been the case in all but two of the Gophers men’s contests this season.
Come Friday and Saturday at 3M Arena at Mariucci, Motzko will put that three-goal theory aside. “With Penn State that’s not the case,” he said. “… They have the most potent offense in college hockey. I’m convinced.”
Like their football counterparts a week ago, the eighth-ranked Nittany Lions travel to Minneapolis with a high-powered offense in tow. Penn State (7-2, 3-1 Big Ten) is averaging 4.22 goals per game overall and 5.4 in victories. The Nittany Lions boast five upperclassmen at forward — Alex Limoges, Evan Barratt, Liam Folkes, Brandon Biro and Nate Sucese — who all had 37 or more points in 2018-19. That quintet combined for 92 goals last season and has 15 this season.
“You better respect them,” Motzko said, “or they’re going to make you pay.”
Not that Penn State is unbeatable. In the two losses, the Nittany Lions were shut out by Alaska and Michigan State. But if you want to keep up with Penn State, you’ll likely need some scoring punch.
Just where do the Gophers stand in that department? They have work to do. Minnesota’s 2.4 goals per game ranks 41st among the nation’s 60 Division I teams. And its power play, a strength last season when it had veterans like Rem Pitlick and Tyler Sheehy, ranks 31st nationally and is 0-for-15 in its past six games.
“When they’re not scoring, they’re not fun to be around,” Motzko said of his players.
Generating more scoring will be important for the Gophers’ upcoming stretch. After Penn State, the Gophers are host to No. 15 Wisconsin and No. 9 North Dakots. before traveling to No. 11 Ohio State (Dec. 6-7). That completes a seven-week stretch that includes six teams in the top 15 of the U.S. College Hockey Online poll.
There have been signs of offensive improvement of late. Junior forward Brannon McManus has scored a goal in three consecutive games. And freshman center Jaxon Nelson’s three-on-three overtime goal on Friday gave the Gophers an extra point in the Big Ten standings after a 1-1 tie at Michigan.
On that three-on-three play, the 6-4, 220-pound Nelson displayed the combination of size and speed that made him a phenom while playing for Luverne High School in southwestern Minnesota. He collected the puck in the Gophers defensive zone, sped up the ice and around a defender. Then, with a forehand move cut of, he backhanded the puck over Wolverines goalie Strauss Mann. Though goals in three-on-three OT or a shootout don’t count in official stats, it still was important.
“I was actually going to go off for a change and ended up getting the puck on my stick,” Nelson explained. “… It was definitely a relief. Getting the first one out of the way is sometimes hard.”
Motzko has seen Nelson’s line — freshman Jack Perbix and sophomore Nathan Burke are on the wings — growing into its role.
“A lot of trust; that’s part of it,” Motzko said. “All the lines, we are getting more comfortable with. They’re playing better, creating some offense. … You start believing in what you’re doing and how hard you’re working, chances are going to come.”
With a high-scoring Penn State team visiting, those chances can’t come soon enough.
“I know there’s a day where it’s going to get better,” Motzko said of his offense. “… I just wish I could tell you it’s going to be this Friday.’’