The first night of the Big Ten hockey shakeout leaned in the Gophers’ favor. They kept their hopes of winning a conference regular-season title alive by eliminating Penn State from the race, and Michigan knocked Michigan State out of first place.
So the Gophers and Wolverines share the conference lead.
Despite the many scenarios that could play out in the final weekend of the Big Ten regular season, the Gophers knew all they needed to be concerned with was winning. They quickly put themselves in position to do so on Friday night by scoring three goals in the first period of an eventual 5-0 victory against the Nittany Lions at Mariucci Arena.
The lopsided victory argues that the Gophers (20-12-3, 11-5-3 Big Ten) perform best when more than just points are at stake. Friday’s Big Ten matchup showcased a team already in playoff mind-set with one more regular-season game left.
“You can’t afford one [loss] the rest of the year, but that’s how it is this time of the year and we seem to play better when more is on the line,” Gophers senior captain Kyle Rau said after a three-point effort. “We played really good defensively. [Penn State] averages 40 shots a game and we cut that in half. Our foundation here has always been defense, so any time we can go into the second-to-last-game in the regular season with a good defensive performance, it feels good.”
The Gophers’ defense shut out Penn State (18-13-4, 10-8-1) for just the second time this season and goaltender Adam Wilcox finished with 18 saves, including a first-period save that kept the game scoreless and set the table for his fifth shutout of the year and 12th of his career.
The first line of Rau, Hudson Fasching and Leon Bristedt combined for six points and three goals, led by Rau’s goal and two assists. Sophomores Fasching and Justin Kloos each had a goal and assist, and junior defenseman Mike Reilly assisted on two goals.
Bristedt scored an open-net goal late in the third period and Vinni Lettieri scored 28 seconds later.
“I thought our team played well against a team [that plays like the teams] you’re going to see in the playoffs. [Penn State] is relentless,” Wilcox said. “I thought overall as a team defensively, we played just a good as we had the whole year.”
Reilly jump-started the Gophers’ big offensive night with what he thought was his power-play goal 8:48 into the first period. His one-timer from just inside the blue line was actually tipped by Rau past Penn State goalie Eamon McAdam, who finished with 35 saves.
It didn’t take long for the Gophers to build on their lead. Kloos’ wraparound goal increased the lead to 2-0, and Reilly picked up another assist when he spotted Fasching alone in front of the net for a quick 3-0 lead.
Penn State was averaging 40.3 shots on goal per game, but was unable to get any offensive rhythm going.
“It started with how well we played defensively,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “Adam made a big save early in the game when it was 0-0 off the 2-on-1 [rush]; one of the few mistakes we made in an outnumbered situation. And the power play came through with the first goal and we scored a couple more after that. … But [Friday] is over. We got our points and [Saturday] is a critical game for us.”