Don Lucia emerged from a stunned Gophers locker room Friday night admittedly “dumbfounded” by his team’s performance again.
Another slow start. Another senseless major penalty. Three more periods of disjointed offense.
After dominating Penn State at home for four seasons, the No. 7 Gophers opened Big Ten play against the No. 11 Nittany Lions and got severely outplayed in a 3-1 loss before an announced crowd of 8,840 at 3M Arena at Mariucci.
“We’ve looked better in practice than we have in the game, and I’m just dumbfounded by that, to be quite honest,” Lucia said.
Penn State, which started playing Division I hockey five years ago, was 1-7 at Mariucci, and it had been outscored in those games by a combined 31-11.
“Any time you get any points out of Mariucci, it’s a great night for us,” Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky said.
After coming out flat in last week’s opener — a 4-3 overtime loss at No. 5 Minnesota Duluth — the Gophers were proud of how they responded the next day, with a 2-0 win over Union.
But missing captain Tyler Sheehy, week-to-week because of an unspecified injury, the Gophers (1-2) came out even flatter vs. Penn State. They didn’t even have a shot on goal for the game’s first 12 minutes.
This came after the Gophers were outshot 10-1 last week in the first 10 minutes at UMD. Lucia had stressed the importance of a good start all week.
“I thought we had good energy to start the game,” Gophers junior Darian Romanko said. “It was just our brain wasn’t working.”
By the time the first period ended, the Gophers had given up four breakaway chances. Andrew Sturtz converted the fourth one, grabbing a turnover from Brent Gates Jr., skating down and deking Eric Schierhorn for the goal.
The Gophers took a penalty for too many men on the ice in the second period. Penn State (2-1) made it hurt when Denis Smirnov whistled a shot past Schierhorn, who was making his 78th consecutive start, matching a 51-year-old team record.
Lucia said another focal point all week was discipline, but Minnesota’s penalty problems compounded. Rem Pitlick went off for goaltender interference, and Leon Bristedt took a five-minute major for checking from behind.
“That kind of sums up where we’re at right now,” Lucia said. “You’re trying, but you’re not trying smart.”
Facing a 5-on-3, the Gophers killed off the first penalty, but Nikita Pavlychev scored off a pass out front from Cole Hults for a 3-0 lead.
The Gophers tried grabbing some momentum before the second period ended. Mike Szmatula drove the net and almost scored, but sophomore goalie Peyton Jones reached back and swatted the puck away with his stick, midair.
“I’ve seen saves like that on ‘SportsCenter,’ ” Gadowsky said. “I’d never seen one live.”
The third period was another downer for Gophers fans, as the team went the first 6:34 without a shot on goal.
Lucia turned to his fourth line to give the team a spark. Romanko made a nifty pass out front to Ryan Norman, whose high shot scored with 11:03 remaining. But Jones didn’t let the Gophers get any closer.
“We’ve got to change the way we’re playing,” Lucia said. “We’re not playing the right way.”