The “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the exclamation point on a home sweep by the Gophers men’s hockey team, was piped in over the loudspeakers, rather than played by a band.
The gathering at 3M Arena at Mariucci was 159, limited to players’ families because of the coronavirus pandemic.
And the play on the ice still might have featured some COVID-19-related rust, but to coach Bob Motzko and his team, Friday’s 3-2 victory over Penn State that finished a sweep of the season-opening series offered relief and rejuvenation.
“I’d high-five you right now if you were sitting in front of me,” Motzko said on his postgame video conference. “We get two wins against a team that’s had our number, and we’ve waited [eighth months] to play. … We’re in a pretty good spot.”
The 11th-ranked Gophers secured the sweep of the No. 10 Nittany Lions — their first vs. Penn State since a pair of them three weeks apart in February 2017 — in differing ways. Thursday night, they used the balance of four goals spread among three lines in a 4-1 triumph. Friday, it was the top line of Sammy Walker, Brannon McManus and Blake McLaughlin doing the damage. Walker and McManus each had a goal and an assist, and McLaughlin contributed two assists.
Making it all stand up was senior goalie Jack LaFontaine, who made 34 saves Friday and stopped 60 of 63 in the series. “He had an unbelievable game, unbelievable weekend,” said Walker, the team’s captain.
Scott Reedy got the Gophers started in the first period by tipping a shot past Penn State goalie Liam Souliere with a second left in the man advantage. Penn State, playing with much more jump in its step than it had Thursday, pressured later in the period for the equalizer and got it when a turnover by Gophers defenseman Matt Staudacher at the blue line led to a three-on-one rush that Christian Sarlo finished at 17:31.
Then came the turning point late in the first, with Staudacher quickly making amends for his miscue. The sophomore hit Walker with a stretch pass as he entered the Penn State zone. Walker charged toward the net and snapped a shot past Souliere’s glove for a 2-1 Gophers lead with 0.8 seconds left.
“That’s a game-changing play,” Motzko said.
Walker admitted he could hear the bench yelling for him to shoot.
“I think I heard everyone in the stadium,” Walker said. “I thought, ‘Oh, yeah. It’s probably a good time to shoot.’ ”
McManus, elevated to the top line before the game, put the Gophers up 3-1 in the second period on a goal with flair.
Taking a nice backhand pass from Walker, McManus drove down the middle and looked toward his right as if he were about to pass to defenseman Jackson LaCombe. Instead, he used the head fake to fool Souliere, who finished with 24 saves, and rifle a shot past the goalie’s glove for the power-play marker.
“I wanted to sell it to ‘Comber,’ and once the defenseman’s stick was there, I knew I had a good shot right in the middle of the ice,” McManus said.
That two-goal lead came in handy because Penn State’s Kevin Wall trimmed it to 3-2 at 4:41 of the third. From there, the Gophers weathered some tense moments, killing two Penn State power plays down the stretch but surviving for the sweep against a program that owned an 11-2-1 record vs. Minnesota over the previous three seasons.
“It feels really good,” Walker said. “We needed that — everyone in the room and as an organization — to get back on top of these guys.”