Know Your Enemy: No. 15 Penn State Hockey vs. No. 11 Minnesota
No. 15 Penn State men’s hockey (16-13-5, 9-10-5 Big Ten) will take on No. 11 Minnesota in a best-of-three Big Ten quarterfinal at Pegula Ice Arena this weekend in a rematch of the two teams’ regular season finale.
The Nittany Lions dominated Minnesota in every aspect of both games throughout the weekend, but with a spot in the Big Ten semifinals and, more importantly, an NCAA Tournament bid on the line for both teams, this will certainly be a different series. Will history repeat itself this weekend, or will Minnesota exact its revenge?
It’s common knowledge among college hockey fans that Minnesota (19-15-2, 10-12-2 Big Ten) is a really good hockey team. It’s also common knowledge in Penn State’s locker room that Minnesota’s jimmies are rustled after a weekend when the Gophers lose home-ice advantage in this weekend’s quarterfinal.
It’s clear that Penn State has gotten under the skin of some of Minnesota’s top players with ease. First-pairing defenseman Ryan Lindgren got the “crybaby” treatment from Penn State’s Evan Barratt in a clip that spread like wildfire, while center Casey Mittlestadt’s impact on the series was limited by a fantastic effort from the Nittany Lions’ defense and goaltender Peyton Jones.
Mittlestadt, a top-ten NHL Draft pick in 2017, scored the Gophers’ lone goal on Friday night, but finished the weekend with a minus-2 rating, which was completely anonymous during game two of the series. In addition to Mittlestadt, top forwards Rem Pitlick, Tommy Novak, and Tyler Sheehy did not make much of an impact on either game. Pitlick was held pointless, while Novak and Sheehy each recorded just one assist each throughout the weekend.
Getting the stars going will be essential for the Golden Gophers’ chances of moving on in the tournament, but this task will be much more difficult in the hostile environment of Pegula Ice Arena. Both crowds for last weekend’s series were excellent; the fact that this will be the first postseason series at Pegula should up the ante and make an already-tough atmosphere much more hostile.
Sophomore Mat Robson was one of the hottest goalies in the Big Ten entering the Penn State series, but he was peppered for eight goals on 99 shots throughout the weekend. He was pulled from Friday night’s game after allowing four goals on 59(!) shots, yet head coach Don Lucia went right back to him for game two of the series. Expect starter-turned-backup Eric Schierhorn to start at least one game this weekend, perhaps including game one of the series on Friday night.
You can look at the numbers and reasonably conclude that Minnesota got smoked this weekend, but the team definitely had plenty of opportunities to gain momentum that were squandered away for a number of reasons.
Penn State’s defense showed excellent discipline throughout game one of the series, but a stronger effort from Minnesota in game two led to five power play opportunities. Penn State’s penalty kill was equal to the task, killing off all of the penalties it faced en route to a 5-2 victory.
Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity of the weekend came during the early stages of the third period of game one. Andrew Sturtz was ejected for making head contact with Ryan Lindgren 14 seconds into the third as his team led 2-1. However, Minnesota skated away from the play with just a three-minute power play. Defenseman Jack Sadek stood up for Lindgren, which is almost always the right thing to do, but a two-minute roughing minor trimmed the Gophers’ five-minute power play chance down to three minutes.
It’s not a guarantee that Minnesota would have scored on a five-minute power play, but losing the right to one, along with Penn State’s best forward sitting out for the rest of the game, has to make the Golden Gophers feel as if they squandered a big chance to steal a victory.
The Minnesota team I saw on Friday night was objectively awful, but the Gophers responded with a much better effort on Saturday. Based on Saturday’s game, I think Minnesota will steal at least one of the games at Pegula before ultimately losing the series in three.