Know Your Enemy: No. 7 Penn State Men’s Hockey vs. No. 2 Minnesota
It’s crunch time for Penn State men’s hockey as it enters the final two weeks of its season with the chance to clinch home-ice advantage in the Big Ten Tournament for the first time in four years. The only thing standing in its way? The No. 2 Minnesota Golden Gophers.
The Nittany Lions’ recent play has been discouraging, but a successful series against Minnesota can right the ship on what could still be a promising season. Penn State will enter its biggest series of the season with an overall record of 19-10-1, but a concerning 9-10-1 record against Big Ten opponents.
Penn State dropped three of its last four games, while the Golden Gophers enter Friday’s series opener after getting upset by last-place Wisconsin in their most recent game.
Here’s what to expect when the Nittany Lions take the ice for their biggest series of the season against Minnesota.
The new year hasn’t been kind to the Nittany Lions thus far. Since the calendar flipped to 2023, Penn State has just two wins through eight games. Minnesota is 6-3-1 in 2023, with two of those losses coming from the No. 4-ranked team in the country at the time: St. Cloud State.
In last year’s Big Ten Tournament, Minnesota ended Penn State’s season with a 3-2 win in the second round and advanced to the conference title game that it later lost. The Nittany Lions welcomed back a handful of players from last year’s squad, including goaltender Liam Souliere, but new additions like Ashton Calder and Ture Linden have taken Penn State to the next level.
The last matchup between the two teams came in mid-November when Minnesota was ranked No. 1 in the nation. Penn State took the series opener 4-2 before dropping the series finale 3-1.
Forward Christian Sarlo played a key role for the Nittany Lions in that series. The junior scored two goals in the two games to help Penn State leave Minneapolis with a series split. Souliere was solid in the net and started both games while allowing five goals on 54 shots. Another series split with the Golden Gophers would put Penn State in a good position in terms of clinching a home Big Ten Tournament game.
The Golden Gophers bring a dynamic offense in terms of personnel. Minnesota boasts a starting lineup that could consist of up to 14 NHL draft picks headlined by freshman forward and Pittsburgh native Logan Cooley. Cooley, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft by the Arizona Coyotes, has had a dominant season, scoring 14 goals and 24 assists in 29 games played. The 18 year old registered an assist in two games against Penn State earlier this season.
Cooley isn’t the only freshman who’s had an impact for Minnesota this season; St. Louis Blues first-round pick Jimmy Snuggerud leads the team in points with 40. He’s also tied with Matthew Knies as the team leader in goals with 17.
Snuggerud isn’t shy to fire the puck on net, as he leads the Golden Gophers with 105 shots on goal, one of only two players on Minnesota’s roster with over 85 shots. However, Snuggerud has yet to register a point against Penn State in his brief collegiate career.
Expect to see a lot of Justen Close in the net for the Golden Gophers. Close sits atop the Big Ten with a goals-against average of 2.09, while ranking second in save percentage at .923. The senior netkeeper allowed four goals on 57 shots in the two games against Penn State in November.
Keys To The Series
The biggest key to the series for Penn State is without a doubt a good performance from Souliere. The sophomore has been very productive in his second season as a starter in Happy Valley, but his recent play against Big Ten opponents is questionable.
Souliere has won just one of his seven starts since the new year. If Penn State wishes to have any shot of upsetting Minnesota again, Souliere needs to be locked in from the start.
Special teams will play a big role in the series, as Minnesota is a team that thrives on taking advantage of its opponent’s mistakes. The Golden Gophers possess more than enough offensive firepower, and if Penn State continues its struggles in terms of staying out of the penalty box, Minnesota will find the back of the net early and often. Penn State committed six penalties in its 3-1 loss against Minnesota earlier this season. In their 4-2 win, the Nittany Lions committed only one penalty.
Limiting Minnesota’s access to the offensive zone, particularly on the rush, will be crucial for Penn State in this series. The Golden Gophers possess a lot of speed, so the skating ability of Penn State’s defense needs to be at an elite level if it wishes to compete with its explosive opponent.
It’s not going to be easy for Penn State, as it needs to play nearly perfectly to knock off the No. 2 team in the country. We predict that the Nittany Lions will repeat what they did the last time they faced off against Minnesota.
Our official prediction for this weekend’s series is Penn State wins game one 3-2 before dropping the second game by a score of 5-2.
Both Friday and Saturday’s games will be available to watch on the Big Ten Network beginning at 6:30 p.m.
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“If they make a mistake, it’s not a failure unless you don’t try again.”
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