The Gophers men’s hockey team enjoyed a mostly stress-free existence in the season’s first three games, outscoring Penn State and Ohio State by a combined 11-4 in a trio of victories. Minnesota held the lead in 136 of the 180 minutes played and was up by two or more goals in more than 65 minutes in those contests.
Tuesday night, however, stress for the eighth-ranked Gophers came in the form of a game against Ohio State that was separated by one goal for most of three periods at 3M Arena at Mariucci.
They passed this stress test.
Scott Reedy scored early in the first period, Nathan Burke added a goal almost 12 minutes into the third, and Jack LaFontaine made it stand up with 22-save shutout — the first of his career — as the Gophers defeated the Buckeyes 2-0 to sweep the series and remain undefeated.
“During the course of a season, there are times you have to win a 1-0 game. When you find yourselves in one, you have to battle it out,’’ Gophers coach Bob Motzko said. “That’s what we were in tonight until right at the end.’’
Minnesota is off to a 4-0 start for the first time since the 2014-15 season and is 4-0 in conference play for the first time since the 2011-12 squad began the WCHA season with a 6-0 mark. Last season, the Gophers didn’t win their fourth Big Ten game until Jan. 24.
“Our fourth game in six nights, and this was our best game of all four,’’ Motzko said.
The Gophers quickly took a 1-0 lead at 1:53 of the first period on Reedy’s third goal of the season.
Reedy took a great cross-ice pass from Brannon McManus from the Minnesota blue line, entered the Ohio State zone and blasted a shot. Goalie Tommy Nappier got a piece of the puck, but it trickled behind him for the goal. Buckeyes coach Steve Rohlik challenged the play for too many men on the ice, but a video review upheld the goal.
“Getting a goal early really started our engines,’’ Reedy said. “First and second period, we had a ton of energy.’’
Though the Gophers outshot Ohio State 15-6 in the first period and 35-22 for the game, Nappier, the 2019 Big Ten goalie of the year, kept his team close.
“You watched one heck of a goaltending dual between two seniors — two of the better seniors, I believe, in the country,’’ Motzko said.
LaFontaine, meanwhile, made sure the Gophers held that lead. His biggest save might have come in the second period when, with Ohio State (0-2) shorthanded, the Buckeyes’ Matt Cassidy stripped the puck at the blue line and skated in all alone on LaFontaine. The Gophers goalie made a pad save to preserve the lead.
LaFontaine was quick to credit his teammates for their help.
“I’m not going to say it was 100 percent a goalie shutout,’’ he said. “This week especially, you saw a team shutout.’’
Ohio State pressed for the equalizer in the third, but the Gophers finally got some separation at 11:54 when Ben Meyers skated around the net and took a shot. Burke pumped the rebound past Nappier for a 2-0 lead.
“It was sure nice to pop that second goal late in the third,’’ Motzko said. “Burkie and Ben Meyers connecting was awesome.”