Bob Motzko has made no secret that he believes he has a good hockey team this season, based on its strong finish in 2019-20, its few offseason losses and its maturing sophomore class. The Gophers coach also knows there's much work to be done, saying last week, "We've got one monster step to take.''
Thursday night during the opener of Minnesota's 100th season of men's hockey – an opener delayed more than a month because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic – the Gophers at least took a nice first step in a 4-1 victory over defending Big Ten champion Penn State.
"Great first game for us,'' Motzko said afterward. "Just to get a win and have that feeling in the locker room was outstanding.''
The return of college hockey to Minnesota at 3M Arena at Mariucci for the first time since March 8 played out in front of 129 players' family members – and several rows of socially distanced cardboard cutouts, plus pumped-in crowd noise. The 11th-ranked Gophers, decked out in their 100th season throwbacks, got goals from Jonny Sorenson, Scott Reedy, Cullen Munson and Sampo Ranta to beat the No. 10 Nittany Lions.
Penn State has been Minnesota's nemesis, posting an 11-2-1 record against the Gophers over the past three seasons. Included in that were 8-2 and 6-3 victories over a team of Minnesota youngsters last November in Minneapolis. In February, the Gophers showed improvement, tying the Nittany Lions 3-3 before falling 3-2 the next night. They were to meet March 14 in the Big Ten tournament semifinals, but COVID-19 said no.
Thursday the Gophers accomplished what they couldn't at Penn State. They built on their lead and rode the solid goaltending of Jack LaFontaine, who made 26 saves.
"It's huge. They've had our number the last few years,'' said Sorenson, a sophomore who scored the Gophers first goal, adding, "The job's not finished. We've got to close them out tomorrow'' when Minnesota goes for the sweep at 3 p.m.
The atmosphere in Mariucci was muted, which put the onus on the players to create their own energy. After a scoreless first period, the Gophers did just that, using Sorenson's rebound goal off a Ben Meyers shot for a 1-0 lead at 5:22 of the second, then going up 2-0 on a goal by Scott Reedy at 10:16.
"I thought it would affect us more, but the boys were pretty loud on the bench, just trying to keep everyone engaged,'' Sorenson said of the lack of a crowd. "We were so anxious to get out there, we would've played for anything in front of anyone at that point.''
Penn State cut the lead to 2-1 with 27 seconds left in the second on Kevin Wall's breakaway tally, which Motzko pointed to as a teachable moment. "We didn't have good clock management,'' he said. "We'll get that cleaned up.''
Munson's goal early in the third made it 3-1, and next came a jaw-dropping individual display punctuated by a bit of comedy.
At 10:47 of the third, Gophers junior winger Sampo Ranta blew by Penn State defenseman Christian Berger, went coast to coast and tucked the puck past Autio for a 4-1 lead, seemingly the dagger. However, the play was reviewed, and the referee waved his arms and said "No goal'' because of a hand pass by Gophers freshman Mason Nevers in the defensive zone.
Except the ref really didn't mean it. After a brief delay, the goal was announced as good, restoring Minnesota's 4-1 lead.
"It was like that Miss America pageant when he called the wrong name,'' Motzko said, referring to Steve Harvey's gaffe in the 2015 Miss Universe pageant. "[The referee] knew what he wanted to do, but he had a brain cramp. I just said, 'Hey, I have those every day.' They got it right.''
Ranta had to sweat out a few tense moments. "It was a roller coaster for sure,'' he said, "and I didn't know which way it was going to go.''