By Jess Myers
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio State’s Big Ten title-clinching party has been postponed until next weekend.
On Saturday, Feb. 16, the Minnesota Golden Gophers again built a big lead and held off the hard-charging Buckeyes for a 4-3 win and an unlikely weekend sweep of the conference’s top team.
The Gophers (13-14-4 overall, 10-9-3-0 Big Ten) got goals from Scott Reedy, Nathan Burke and Brent Gates to build a 3-0 lead, and the game-winner from Tyler Sheehy in the third period. But the story was defense, again, as the Gophers blocked 19 Ohio State shots and got 43 saves from goaltender Mat Robson in the victory.
Needing a win to clinch the conference title, the Buckeyes (19-7-4, 12-5-3-2) mounted a spirited rally with Mason Jobst and Carson Meyer scoring on the power play, and Ronnie Hein pulling them within a goal late, but they could not come all the way back. It was the first time this season that the Buckeyes have lost consecutive games.
“There’s a whole lot of good to come out of this weekend. Tonight we had the good, bad and the ugly, but a lot of good though,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said outside a jubilant locker room. “Robson was very good in goal for us, and I thought we did way more good things tonight than just hanging on when we had to at the end.”
The last strains of the national anthem were seemingly still echoing through Value City Arena when Jack Sadek’s long lead pass somehow found both Sampo Ranta and Reedy behind the Buckeye defense. Just 20 seconds into the game, Ranta passed to Reedy who beat Ohio State goalie Tommy Nappier with a low shot for a 1-0 lead.
Nappier thwarted a Sammy Walker rush to the net a few minutes later, but could not stop the all-freshman line’s third shift. This time Blake McLaughlin got the puck to Walker, who fed Burke for a quick shot that landed over the goal line. It was the second goal for Burke on the weekend, and the fourth set up by his line of rookies. McLaughlin also finished with three blocked shots while defenseman Ryan Zulhsdorf led the Gophers in blocks with five.
“We knew going into the game that we had to block a few shots,” McLaughlin said. “Growing up I blocked shots and I kind of got away from it in juniors. But I knew in this game I needed to help my team out, and I think that was the best way I could help.”
The Buckeyes responded by buzzing around Robson for much of the opening period and getting 16 shots on the Minnesota net, but could not get on the board.
After Gates made it 3-0 on a wrist shot to Nappier’s stick side for his second goal in the past three games, the Buckeyes answered on their first and third power plays of the game to pull back within a goal after 40 minutes.
Sheehy’s close-range wrist shot off a wraparound pass from Rem Pitlick again gave the Gophers a two-goal lead. The assist was Pitlick’s 100th career point, and extended his point streak to 13 games. But again the Buckeyes responded on a tip by Hein just 70 seconds later to make it 4-3. Ohio State out-shot the Gophers 21-2 in the third.
“Coach has been talking about playing better against a structured team and we were able to do that,” Pitlick said. “We have it in our room. We know that we’ve had consistency problems this year but we know we’ve got it so we just need to bring it out when the most important games are coming, and this was an important weekend.”
The Gophers were out-numbered for the game’s final 2:19 when Tyler Nanne was whistled for tripping and Buckeyes coach Steve Rohlik pulled Nappier for an extra attacker. But Robson made seven saves in the closing minutes to preserve the team’s second road sweep of the season. Nappier finished with 12 saves for the Buckeyes, who travel to Michigan next weekend still needing a win to clinch their first conference title since 1972.
“I can’t fault our effort tonight other than a couple of major blunders defensively, which basically cost us,” Rohlik said. “Other than that our guys played hard, they fought to the finish, and that’s college hockey. It’s hard to win.”
The Gophers were without forward Brannon McManus and defenseman Clayton Phillips, both of whom sat out due to injuries suffered in Friday night’s 4-3 win.