Penn State might be a hockey team the Gophers — or at least junior center Rem Pitlick — hate, what with how the Nittany Lions swept them two consecutive weekends to dash their NCAA tournament hopes last year. But the Gophers still came out of Friday’s loss realizing they have something to learn from the No. 9 team in the nation.
The Nittany Lions blocked a whopping 21 shots in their 4-2 victory at 3M Arena at Mariucci, nearly triple the number the home team managed.
“They’re a veteran group. They’ve been doing that for a couple years now, ever since I’ve been playing them,” senior winger Brent Gates Jr. said after the humbled Gophers (6-8-4, 3-3-3-0 Big Ten) lost before an announced crowd of 7,375. “They bought in. And that’s something that we can work on as well.”
While the Gophers scored first from Gates’ fifth power-play goal of the season 17 minutes, 16 seconds in, Penn State — a team Pitlick said he hated after what happened at the end of the last season — went on to score three unanswered goals. The Nittany Lions (12-5-2, 4-4-1-1) are the nation’s leader with 98 goals, averaging 5.16 per game, after all.
Gophers coach Bob Motzko called Penn State’s first goal, from junior Brandon Biro early in the second period, and third goal, from junior Denis Smirnov early in the third, “defensible,” and he lamented his team giving away easy scores. The first one, for example, Biro scored while falling down after Gophers freshman center Sammy Walker tripped him. Senior defenseman Kevin Kerr scored Penn State’s second goal.
Senior winger Jack Ramsey scored his first goal of the season to put the Gophers back within one 7:17 into the third, but an empty-net goal from Penn State’s Alex Limoges with 18 seconds to play sealed the loss.
And this was all without two of the Nittany Lions’ best players: Sophomore forward Evan Barratt and freshman forward Aarne Talvitie both are playing in the World Juniors — with the U.S. and Finland, respectively — and will meet in Saturday’s gold medal game in Vancouver.
Ramsey called this a “run-and-gun” game, with the Gophers managing 32 shots on goal to Penn State’s 31. The difference was Nittany Lions junior Peyton Jones’ 30-save performance, with his skaters chipping in those blocks, as well as the Gophers continuing to struggle with finishing their chances.
Despite the score, Ramsey said he believed the Gophers controlled the game comfortably at many moments, especially in the third period. And his coach also chose to focus on those bright side of the performance as well.
“Our good game was out there tonight,” said Motzko, whose team got 27 saves from Mat Robson. “It’s real easy to be critical right now. You can find a lot. … I have to draw on positives right now.
“Compare us to earlier in the year, we weren’t getting enough chances, and now we’re getting chances. We’re playing better hockey. We’re having better depth throughout our lineup. Our power play, we had good looks tonight on it. We need to stick with that right now, and we can’t get frustrated. Because we are a better hockey team.”