The 100th season of Gophers men’s hockey got off to a strong start Thursday night with a 4-1 victory over Penn State at 3M Arena at Mariucci, and the mere fact that college hockey was being played after a hiatus of more than eight months because of COVID-19 offered a small moment of normalcy in these abnormal times.
For Gophers coach Bob Motzko, the circumstances were strange, but eventually the game settled into a fast-paced contest between a Gophers team that’s picked by coaches to win the Big Ten and a Penn State team that’s trying to defend its conference championship while retooling on the fly. The lack of a crowd because of COVID-19 regulations wasn’t detrimental, he said.
“The crowd really makes an impact, but it did not have an impact the other [negative] way tonight,’’ Motzko said. “There was great energy on the ice – both teams you could hear. Both teams played extremely hard. Both teams were playing their rear ends off tonight.’’
Here are three takeaways from Thursday’s game heading into Friday afternoon’s series finale (3 p.m., BTN):
1. The Sampo Show
Gophers junior forward Sampo Ranta showed just why the Colorado Avalanche made him a third-round draft pick in 2018.
With the Gophers leading 3-1 in the third period, Ranta took a pass from Scott Reedy in the Gophers zone, blew past Penn State defenseman Christian Berger in the neutral zone, drove hard to the net and tucked the puck past Nittany Lions goalie Oskar Autio to complete the spectacular rush at 10:47.
The play would be reviewed – and kind of, sort of waved off by a referee who meant to say “good goal’’ but instead waved his arms in a “no goal’’ manner before the goal was announced as good a few moments later. “Brain cramp,’’ is how Motzko described it, telling the referee, “Hey, I have those every day.’’
Motzko would like to see more of that from his 6-2, 200-pound Finn.
“He spent the first two periods taking the puck back to the blue line. Take it to the hole,’’ Motzko said. “He’s so big and strong, and when he does that, he’s just a dangerous player. We’ve got to keep his compass pointed to the north.’’
2. Doing the little things well
When you look at the score sheet, the Gophers dominated in two areas that enabled them to keep the puck away from Penn State and counter the Nittany Lions’ no-shot-is-a-bad-shot aggressiveness: faceoffs and blocked shots.
Minnesota won 37 of the game’s 55 faceoffs, led by Ben Meyers’ 11-3 showing and Jaxon Nelson’s 9-2 effort, outstanding numbers for the third- and fourth-line pivots. Top-line center Sammy Walker was 11-7 on the dot, while Scott Reedy was 6-5.
In blocked shots, Minnesota had 24 to Penn State’s 15. Leading the way was sophomore defenseman Matt Staudacher, who had five, including a sliding block that thwarted a Nittany Lions scoring chance in the first period. Ranta and sophomore defenseman Jackson LaCombe blocked three shots each.
“We were terrific in the faceoff circle,’’ Motzko said. “That was one of our biggest goals tonight. … The blocked shots, once that started, they felt that on the bench. That’s something that will really be rewarded tomorrow on film.’’
3. Better clock management
Penn State’s lone goal, which came with 27 seconds left in the second period and trimmed the Gophers’ lead to 2-1, was the result of the Gophers being too aggressive in their own end and not protecting that two-goal lead.
“I didn’t like the goal at the end of the second period. That’s got to be better clock management,’’ Motzko said. “We don’t need to be going down with a 2-0 lead. … We’ll get that cleaned up and continue to get better.’’
Note: Thursday’s game was played in front of a gathering of 129 family members of players. That will be allowed for Friday’s finale, but beginning at 11:59 p.m. Friday, Gov. Tim Walz’s new COVID-19 restrictions that do not allow for crowds at indoor events goes into effect. That means no fans for the Gophers’ next series, Monday and Tuesday against Ohio State at Mariucci.