After watching video of Penn State, the Gophers entered Friday’s game with a long to-do list. To win the game and remain atop the Big Ten standings, they needed to contain the Nittany Lions’ rapid-fire offense, get solid play from all four lines and avoid any letdowns.
The No. 7 Gophers did all that and more in a 5-1 victory at Mariucci Arena. In a superb all-around performance, they put the brakes on the country’s most productive offense, holding No. 6 Penn State to its lowest shot total of the season while putting on a scoring show of their own. Freshman Rem Pitlick’s two goals helped stake the Gophers (16-7-2, 7-2 Big Ten) to a 3-0 lead, and Tyler Sheehy finished with a goal and two assists.
Penn State (16-5-2, 5-3-1) entered the game averaging 4.41 goals and 48.2 shots per game. It finished with 29 shots — its previous season low was 32 — and got its lone goal from defenseman Trevor Hamilton at 8 minutes, 42 seconds of the second period.
The victory kept the Gophers tied with Wisconsin for first place in the Big Ten standings with 21 points each.
“We knew what kind of game [Penn State] was going to play,” said Gophers defenseman Jake Bischoff, who had three assists. “They were going to be tough to play against and be fast and work hard. I think we matched their intensity, and that was what took over in the end.
“Everyone knew this was a big weekend for us, for the Big Ten and [the NCAA tournament]. We were ready to go.”
The game kicked off the final stage of the Gophers’ regular-season schedule, a stretch of 12 Big Ten games in six weekends. In addition to maintaining their hold on the Big Ten lead, the Gophers burnished their postseason credentials by beating a team ranked ahead of them in the Pairwise Rankings, which mirror the method used to select at-large teams for the NCAA tournament field. The victory moved them from seventh to fifth in the Pairwise.
It also showed what they are capable of doing when they are focused and prepared. The Nittany Lions play a head-spinning style, rolling four fast lines that generate bushels of scoring opportunities. The Gophers countered it with maximum effort from all four lines and six defensemen.
Both teams played cautiously in the opening minutes, then the Gophers found their footing. Vinni Lettieri finished off a tenacious shift by putting a backhander past goalie Chris Funkey at 17:22 of the first period, and Pitlick scored twice in the first 4:33 of the second.
Pitlick got both goals by going to the net, something coach Don Lucia has been urging him to do. His teammates followed instructions, too. The Gophers defense blocked 19 shots, knocked pucks off the Nittany Lions’ sticks and prevented Penn State from crashing the net.
“We highlighted how [the Lions] shoot from anywhere and do a good job of getting to the net, with the defensemen joining the rush,” Lucia said. “The [Gophers] defense did a good job boxing out and not giving up second-chance opportunities. It was a good, hard-fought win, like we knew it would have to be.”
After Hamilton’s wrister from the right circle cut the Gophers’ lead to 3-1, Sheehy scored with 4.1 seconds remaining in the second period, and Mike Szmatula added a third-period goal. Eric Schierhorn had another strong game in net, stopping 28 shots.
The Gophers now have won 11 of their past 14 games. Lucia said Saturday’s series finale will be a test of the Gophers’ maturity, one they hope to ace as thoroughly as they did Friday.
“I think every game, we’re making a step forward,” Pitlick said. “We’ve got to keep moving.’’