After last week’s series split with Clarkson and St. Lawrence in upstate New York, No. 11 Penn State men’s hockey opens conference play this weekend when it takes on No. 7 Minnesota.
This is the Nittany Lions’ first opportunity to take on a national power this season, with game one taking place on Friday night at 8 p.m. at Mariucci. Due to Minnesota’s home football game on Saturday, game two will be played on Sunday at 4 p.m.
Minnesota entered the 2017-18 season as the No. 3 team in the nation, but a week one split saw the team drop to the seventh spot. The Gophers’ season started with an overtime loss to No. 5 Minnesota-Duluth, but they rebounded nicely with a 2-0 win over Union.
Last year, Minnesota had an extremely strong regular season, but struggled to find wins in postseason play. We all know what happened when Penn State met the Gophers in the Big Ten tournament, but these struggles extended to the national tournament as well.
The Golden Gophers entered the NCAA Tournament as the top seed in their region and the No. 4 seed overall. However, Notre Dame pulled off a major upset in the first round of the tournament en route to a Frozen Four appearance.
That being said, it’s a new season, and Minnesota certainly added talent to its already-stacked roster. Freshman center Casey Mittelstadt joined the Gophers’ roster after committing in 2014, and despite the fact that he only has two games of college experience, he may already be one of the best players in the country.
Mittelstadt was selected eighth overall by none other than Terry Pegula’s Buffalo Sabres in the 2017 NHL Draft. The Edina, MN native is a dynamic scoring forward who makes up for his lack of strength with speed, skill, and a very high hockey IQ. The rookie scored a goal and an assist in his team’s first two games this year.
The Gophers’ talent doesn’t stop at Mittelstadt; he is complemented by a group of veterans who had great years last year. Minnesota returns forwards Tyler Sheehy and Rem Pitlick, defenseman Ryan Lindgren, and starting goalie Eric Schierhorn.
In contrast, several of last year’s key cogs are no longer with the team, including ex-captain Justin Kloos and Vinni Lettieri. The two forwards combined for 80 points as regulars in the Minnesota lineup, and this past weekend’s games were the first where Kloos did not play for Minnesota since he joined the team as a freshman.
Despite the departures, Minnesota’s roster is still dangerous and one of the best in college hockey. Mittelstadt has impressed in his first two collegiate games; he scored his first career college goal during the Gophers’ 2-0 win over Union.
Additionally, Tyler Sheehy is still one of the most dynamic scorers in the country, but he was held mostly in check over the opening weekend of the season. The 2017 Hobey Baker Finalist only tallied one assist in his team’s first two games after a 53-point season last year, but he won’t be quiet for long.
Rem Pitlick scored three points over the opening weekend, so the Gophers may continue to ride the hot hand against Penn State. Goalie Eric Schierhorn was successful in each of his team’s first two games; he made 40 saves in the loss against UMD, and put up a 26-save shutout against Union one night later.
Losing Justin Kloos and Vinni Lettieri hurts the Golden Gophers, but they still have tons of NHL-quality talent on their roster. This will not be an easy series for Penn State, especially considering it’s an away series.
In the regular season, Minnesota swept the Nittany Lions, outscoring the conference rivals 20-9 over the four games between the two teams. Penn State would exact some revenge in the Big Ten tournament; Erik Autio tapped in a double-overtime winner to pull off a big upset and eliminate the Gophers from the tournament.
It will be extremely difficult for Penn State to contain all of Minnesota’s weapons on offense, and the Golden Gophers will be out for revenge after last year’s postseason meeting between the teams. A split seems optimistic to predict, but I think the Nittany Lions can win at least one of these two games.