The opportunity for the Gophers men’s hockey team is sitting there, and on the surface, it’s so simple: Win a couple of games on the road and close in on the Big Ten regular-season championship.
“We wouldn’t want to be in any other situation,” junior winger Brannon McManus said. “It’s what we want to play for — moments like these.”
One problem: That road trip is to State College, Pa., where on Friday and Saturday the Gophers face their nemesis, Penn State, in their house of horrors, Pegula Ice Arena, in a matchup of Big Ten co-leaders. Since the start of the 2017-18 season, the Nittany Lions own a 10-2 record against Minnesota. And Penn State’s dominance over the Gophers at Pegula has been even more striking, with the Nittany Lions winning the past six by a combined 35-13.
“What we’re trying to drill home is they whupped our butts earlier in the year,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said, pointing to Penn State’s November sweep by 8-2 and 6-3 scores in Minneapolis. “Let’s see if we’ve closed the gap. … It’s a great measuring stick to see how far we’ve come.”
Certainly, the Gophers have come a long way since the first half of the season, when a team that has nine freshmen manning regular roles struggled to a 5-9-4 start. Beginning with the Mariucci Classic championship in late December, Minnesota has been on a 9-2-1 roll.
That has enabled the Gophers (9-6-5-4 Big Ten) to move into a first-place tie with Penn State (11-8-3) in the conference with 36 points each. The Gophers carry an advantage, though, having four games remaining in conference play while the Nittany Lions have only this weekend’s series. Third-place Michigan, with 31 points and on an 8-1-1 march, closes at Minnesota next weekend.
Penn State, which went 7-3 in its first 10 conference games, has come back to the pack with a 3-4-3 Big Ten mark since Jan. 17. Still, the Nittany Lions average 3.59 goals per game (sixth nationally) and have the nation’s second-best power play (27.36%).
The prize that’s in the Gophers sights is twofold. Should they win the conference regular-season title — that could happen under certain scenarios this weekend — they would have a bye into the single-elimination conference tournament semifinals and in the process boost their standing in the PairWise Ratings, the mathematical formula used by the NCAA to fill its 16-team tournament field.
The Gophers enter this series at No. 17 in the PairWise, still outside the mark to earn an NCAA at-large bid. Positive results vs. Penn State, ranked No. 10 in the PairWise, would move Minnesota up. Remember: Conference tournament winners, not regular-season champs, earn automatic NCAA bids, so banking on one of the 10 at-large bids, if your PairWise is in the Nos. 12-15 range, is precarious.
With the beatings the Gophers have absorbed recently from the Nittany Lions, players are carrying a chip on their shoulder.
“I’m not a fan of Penn State at all. They’ve definitely got our number, my number,” said Gophers senior defenseman Ryan Zuhlsdorf, recalling the end of the 2017-18 season, when Penn State won four consecutive games in State College to deny Minnesota an NCAA tournament berth. “We’re the top two teams in the Big Ten right now. This weekend is ginormous for us or them. We’re really hungry to take over No. 1.”
Sophomore forward Blake McLaughlin senses anger from the first meeting this season, when Penn State, leading 8-2 in the game’s final minute, sent out its top power-play unit.
“They kind of kicked us around a bit at the start of the year,” McLaughlin said. “… We want payback for that because there was no need for that.”
Though Motzko wants a dialed-in and intense team this weekend, he knows that vitriol can go only so far.
“You can be angry all you want. You’ve got to be a better hockey team,” he said. “We can’t make mistakes. They’ve got too much talent, too many older kids that have been through their battles.’’