It is clearly the mark of a good hockey team when they can play what the coach describes as a “clunker” and still send a big crowd home happy.
Playing for the first time in two weeks, the Minnesota Gophers looked lost at times on Saturday in their Big Ten playoff opener versus Penn State but still got a bit of late-game drama and an important win.
Sammy Walker’s goal late in the third period lifted the Gophers past a challenge from Penn State and to a 3-2 victory as they advanced to the Big Ten title game next weekend against Michigan.
Walker scored his 14th of the season off a pass from long-time linemate Blake McLaughlin as the Gophers took a 2-0 lead, saw it slip away, then finished the Nittany Lions’ season in the third period.
“We survived. Let’s hope this was our clunker in one-and-done tournaments,” said Gophers coach Bob Motzko, who liked much of his team’s game, but said they went to sleep at times.
Ben Meyers and Jackson LaCombe also scored for Minnesota (24-11-0) which will host the Wolverines on March 19 for the conference playoff title. Goalie Justen Close had 28 saves as the Gophers won their ninth consecutive game.
“We didn’t have many chances,” Motzko said, in praise of the Nittany Lions’ defensive effort. “We needed one and we got it, and we survived it. We’ll be better next week.”
Trailing by two goals halfway through the game, the Lions got a pair of quick goals and played their normal up-tempo game mixed with some clogging defense, but saw their season come to an end with a 17-20-1 record. They got 22 saves from goalie Liam Souliere in the loss. They had advanced to the semifinals by upsetting Ohio State on the road in a three-game series a week earlier.
“We were in another team’s building last week and we won, so right now it doesn’t feel very good,” Lions coach Guy Gadowsky said. “I guess it wasn’t good enough.”
The Gophers’ biggest fear, having gone nearly two weeks without a game, was the first period rust. And while Penn State grabbed an early advantage in shots on goal, as is the Nittany Lions’ “shoot first” style, the Gophers stayed in the fight and took an early lead. Meyers, who is expected by many to be named the Big Ten’s most valuable player in a few days, tipped a shot by defenseman Ryan Johnson past the Lions goalie for the game’s first goal.
In the waning seconds of the opening period, Meyers also made such a strong rush to the net that Penn State defenseman Simon Mack gave a jersey tug and was whistled for the game’s first penalty.
It took the Gophers just 27 seconds of that man advantage, and one shot, to double their lead, when LaCombe’s blast from the blue line hit traffic and deflected into the net.
But the Lions turned the tables in the latter stages of the middle period, forging a 2-2 tie on a breakaway from the near blue line and a tipped shot past Close on their first power play of the game. The Lions’ first goal snapped a streak of 179:59 that Close had gone without allowing a goal.
With Penn State not allowing the Gophers many opportunities in the final period, the home team finally got a chance. Bryce Brodzinski held a puck in at the blue line and got it to McLaughlin, who waited until the goalie committed, then threaded a pass to Walker for a tap-in with 2:39 to play.
“Brodzinski made a good keep there at the blue line, and he made a great pass over to Blake,” said Walker, who had just missed the net on a similar play in the first period. “He put it right on my tape. I missed the one earlier, so I made sure I put that one in.
Walker said it was typical of the chemistry he and McLaughlin have had during their four years together.
“I know if I just move my feet he’s going to get it to me so I just try to get open and he does what he does best,” Walker said.
The announced attendance of 6,856 was the largest for a Big Ten playoff game under the current format.