A lot of Gophers fans grumbled that they wanted coach Don Lucia out after last season’s 20-17 finish left them out of the NCAA men’s hockey tournament. But those same fans are probably singing Lucia’s praises now with the Gophers ranked fifth in the nation in the USCHO poll and fourth in the PairWise rankings with a 18-8-2 record.

The Gophers are alone atop the Big Ten Conference after they split a series at No. 12 Ohio State last weekend that included a 6-5 victory Saturday with six power-play goals, including two late in the third period by Justin Kloos and Tyler Sheehy.

The Gophers will get another big test this weekend when they head to No. 9 Penn State, who is in third place and five points behind the Gophers in the Big Ten standings. They follow that up with a home series against second-place Wisconsin on February 24 and 25.

Lucia said that against good teams such as Penn State, the Gophers can’t necessarily rely on getting four or five goals per game.

“It’s great to score goals, but really what you’re going to do is going to be dictated by what you do defensively and how well your goaltender is playing,” he said. “I mean, you can win a lot of games 3-2. When you start thinking you have to score four or five just to win a game, that’s just not going to happen very often. We’ve been scoring some goals, and part of that is I think we have some guys playing really well right now, but I think we’re tightening up defensively and when somebody is trying to play catch-up, that creates some openings the other way. We’ve been able to capitalize on that.”

Penn State’s rise

Notre Dame will join the Big Ten for hockey next season, which will make the league schedule more balanced, Lucia said. Penn State first fielded a Division I team in 2012-13, and Lucia talked about how the Nittany Lions benefited during that transition from a generous funding source.

Terry Pegula, who instigated it all — he currently owns the Buffalo Sabres and Buffalo Bills — and from my understanding, he sold an oil and gas company for I don’t know how many billion,” Lucia said. “He gave Penn State $100 million to, I believe, and I’m not 100 percent accurate, but I think he endowed their scholarships for men’s and women’s hockey [and] built their 6,000-seat arena.

“I had been to Penn State as a kid. My dad was coaching high school football and we went there on a spring trip because my aunt lived just outside of Pittsburgh in Bedford, and spent spring practice watching Penn State. I had been there. You look at the success their football team has had, and you say, ‘You know what, hockey is a sport that could be a home run at Penn State.’ They’re a brand-name school, I think they did it the right way, and I think they’ve had 50 straight sellouts at their rink and have done a really nice job building their program.”

Pro prospects

Lucia always has excelled at recruiting and developing NHL-caliber talent. He was asked what it’s like to be a college coach, but also know that a lot of players he recruits to play for the Gophers are also looking ahead to a pro career.

“A guy like [Wild defenseman and former Gopher] Mike Reilly, when he came in, I’m sure his sights were set on being an NHL player,” Lucia said. “And that’s fine, and he worked to do that and was an All-American and was ready to move on. I think you have some other guys that maybe understand where they’re at, and in the back of their mind they want to play after college, and I don’t know if they’re set on playing in the NHL or want to play [professionally] after — whether it’s in the minor leagues in the U.S. or going to play a few years in Europe.

“Everybody is different. You have some guys who just want to get their degree and when college ends, they want to move on in life. But there’s nothing wrong with having the goal to play in the National Hockey League. It’s hard to do. We all know the tip of that period is so tight and so hard that not everybody is going to have a chance at a career, but [if some players want] to have a chance to sign an NHL contract after college, more power to them.”

Jottings

• The Minnesota Daily reported an interesting note on Gophers junior forward Leon Bristedt, who has 27 points in 28 games this season. He is from Stockholm, Sweden, and is only the fourth European-born player to suit up for the Gophers since the program started in 1922.

• Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino was thrilled with his team’s 75-74 victory over Indiana on Wednesday night at Williams Arena. “This team has been a lot of fun to be around. I really enjoy it,” he said in the postgame news conference. If the Gophers can defeat Michigan at home on Sunday, they will have a five-game Big Ten winning streak. The last time the Gophers achieved that feat was in 1997, but since that championship season was vacated they haven’t done that officially since 1978.

• The Gophers baseball team opens their season Friday with a three-game series in California against Cal-Irvine. Then the following weekend, they play their first series at U.S. Bank Stadium, a three-game set against Seattle. The Gophers will play 13 games at U.S. Bank Stadium.

• On Wednesday night, 28 of the 30 teams in the NBA were playing as the league prepares for the All-Star break. The leading scorer in those 14 games was Wolves forward Andrew Wiggins, who had 40 points in a 112-99 victory over Denver. The leading rebounder in Wednesday’s games was Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns, who had 19 boards to go along with 24 points.

• Wiggins and Towns have been on a scoring tear of late. Since Jan. 19, the Wolves have gone 8-7. Wiggins has averaged 27.7 points, good for the sixth-highest total in the league during that stretch. Right in front of him is Towns, who has averaged 28.6 points over that stretch. The only players with higher scoring averages in that period are the Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas, the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook, the Rockets’ James Harden and the Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard.

• Wolves point guard Ricky Rubio has been playing some of the best basketball of his career lately. In 13 games since January 24, Rubio has averaged 12.3 points, 9.7 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game while shooting 41.5 percent from the field, 36.6 percent from three, and 86.0 percent from the line. Rubio is in line for career highs in field-goal percentage (38.6 percent) and free-throw percentage (87.2 percent).

 

Sid Hartman can be heard Mondays and Fridays on 830-AM at 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. shartman@startribune.com