MINNEAPOLIS – Every team will deal with an uneven game – or “clunker” as Gophers head coach Bob Motzko called it – from time to time.
Better to get it out of the way now as opposed to later in the postseason, as he also said.
The 2nd ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers received a first round bye as a result of winning the Big Ten regular season title, and after not playing for two weeks they showed some rust on the ice. But Minnesota was able to shake off the rust just in time thanks to a late goal by Sammy Walker, and they held on to defeat the Penn State Nittany Lions 3-2 on Saturday night at 3M Arena at Mariucci to advance to their second straight tournament title game.
“We survived it, and you have to do that in one-and-done tournaments,” Motzko said.
Playing for the first time since outscoring Wisconsin 13-0 in a two-game home sweep two weeks ago, Minnesota started slowly on offense. The Gophers weren’t able to keep possession of the puck very long around Penn State goaltender Liam Souliere. But credit the Nittany Lions for contributing to that slow start by clogging passing lanes and clearing the puck.
“We were playing into [their hands],” Motzko said. “We did not do a good job penetrating.”
The Gophers finally broke through 12 minutes into the game as a blast from Ryan Johnson was tipped past Souliere by junior captain Ben Meyers.
After Penn State’s Simon Mack was called for holding in the dying seconds of the first period, Minnesota cashed in on their only power play opportunity of the night as Jackson LaCombe scored 27 seconds into the second period to double the lead.
The Nittany Lions weren’t fazed, knowing their season was in the balance even after outlasting Ohio State in three games a week ago. Penn State ramped up the pressure after the LaCombe goal and eventually pulled within one after Christian Sarlo threaded a nice pass from the left wing wall to Tyler Paquette, who left two Gophers in his dust and skated to the slot before beating Justen Close on his stick side. Then Dylan Lugris tied it less than three minutes later on a power play.
“We stopped doing things we were doing,” Motzko said. “We really struggled.”
With the game remaining tied as regulation wore down, the Gophers had only three shots on goal in the third period with three minutes left. Minnesota’s outstanding second line stepped up to provide the game-winning goal and dodge a disappointing upset ahead of the NCAA tournament.
After a 3-on-2 attempt was thwarted, a Penn State clearing attempt was stopped at the blue line by Bryce Brodzinski. Brodzinski then found Blake McLaughlin at the edge of the left circle, and McLaughlin then delivered a beautiful backdoor feed to Walker, who put it into a gaping net.
“I made sure that one went in,” Walker said after noting an earlier chance he missed.
It certainly wasn’t the best game the Gophers have played all year, and while they’re locked into the NCAA tournament, they might have fallen out of contention for a #1 seed with a loss Saturday. They remain in that conversation, and Motzko is happy to be facing a very tough Michigan Wolverines team in order to right the wrongs from the Penn State game and regain their recent run of solid gameplay.
“Let’s hope this was our clunker in one-and-done tournaments,” said Motzko. “We’ll be better next week.
“Hopefully that was our clunker.”
Michigan, who held off Notre Dame 2-1 in Ann Arbor earlier Saturday, will face Minnesota at 7:00 CT next Saturday night for the Big Ten tournament title in Minneapolis.
MINN goal at 12:04: Ben Meyers (16). Assisted by Ryan Johnson (16) and Brock Faber (11).
MINN power play goal at :27: Jackson LaCombe (3). Assisted by Meyers (20) and Aaron Huglen (8).
PSU goal at 14:58: Tyler Paquette (11). Assisted by Christian Sarlo (7) and Xander Lamppa (6).
PSU power play goal at 17:35: Dylan Lugris (4). Assisted by Connor MacEachern (14) and Ben Schoen (16).
MINN goal at 17:21: Sammy Walker (14). Assisted by Blake McLaughlin (19) and Bryce Brodzinski (13).
Power plays: PSU 1-1, MINN 1-1.
Shots on goal: PSU 30, MINN 25.