Brent Gates Jr. saw linemate Rem Pitlick streaking up the middle of the ice and passed him the puck for what he thought would be a breakaway goal.
Instead, Pitlick did his best Top Gun impression, stopping just before the net and sliding the puck back to Gates for a one-timer while two defenders flew by him.
That celebration for the eventual game-winner, though, wasn’t quite as colorful as when the Gophers realized they had beaten the No. 9 Nittany Lions 4-1 on Saturday.
Pitlick, for example, was “pumped” his team was able to split the series at 3M Arena at Mariucci in front of an announced crowd of 8,952 to make up for last year’s two-weekend sweep by Penn State that ended the Gophers’ season.
“A couple swear words in my mind,” was what Pitlick first thought at the final buzzer. “I was really frustrated [Friday] night [after a 4-2 loss]. I mean, what was that, five times in a row they beat us? They had our number.
“But it’s good that we got this win. But we’ve got them two more times this year. So I’m going to be marking that one on the calendar.”
Penn State averages more than five goals per game, but the Gophers (7-8-4, 4-3-3 Big Ten) held the Nittany Lions (12-6-2, 4-5-1-1) to just senior center Chase Berger’s goal in the first period. Gophers junior defenseman Tyler Nanne tied it later in the first.
Gates nabbed his career-high fifth goal in five consecutive games before senior winger Jack Ramsey scored his second goal of the season and the series also in the second. Pitlick added an empty-netter at the end of the game.
Gophers coach Bob Motzko seemed cautiously optimistic that this victory could be a turning point for his team, which battles inconsistency. The Gophers made few mistakes, finally saw 5-on-5 production and benefited from a 31-save performance from junior goaltender Mat Robson.
“That was our best game, start to finish, with our entire lineup playing just a real solid hockey game,” Motzko said.
Besides Gates, Pitlick and Robson, Motzko also praised freshman wing Blake McLaughlin as well as the fourth line of seniors Ryan Norman, Tommy Novak and Ramsey. He also was proud of how his young and often struggling defense kept Penn State from scoring late.
While the recent history between these teams certainly made Saturday’s result sweeter, Gates said it might actually be more meaningful for this season.
“Coming out last night, feeling like we played pretty well but not to get the win, kind of made it a little more sour for us. But to come out tonight the way we did, just have a great team win,” Gates said. “This year’s team, for us confidence-wise and what we’re striving to achieve, it’s a big step for us. And we’re hoping that we can build off of that.”
The Gophers have experienced that feeling before, most recently after a 4-3 victory at Michigan before the holiday break. They ended up dropping a game in the next series to lowly Ferris State. But the team knows there’s no more allowance for such missteps.
“From here on out, we’ve got to win. We know that’s the mentality,” Pitlick said.
“We’ve got to hunker down for the rest of the season.”