Big Ten notebook: Even down a few men, Gophers defenders say 'bring it on'
Both teams have plenty to play for at Pegula Ice Arena this weekend, where the Gophers look to clinch a Big Ten crown, while the Nittany Lions are in a pitched battle for home ice in the playoffs.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – On the football field, some defenders probably dread trying to cover the likes of Randy Moss or Justin Jefferson, knowing the offensive skills they’re tasked with negating. Other defenders relish the challenge of matching skill for skill, and trying to take away what the other team does best.
The Minnesota Gophers’ renowned defensive corps will be shorthanded this weekend with captain Brock Faber and highly-touted rookie Ryan Chesley out due to injury . Going on the road to face Penn State’s notoriously high-powered “shoot from anywhere and everywhere, at all times” offense might strike fear in some defenders. But needing just one more win to clinch the Big Ten title, at least one Gophers blueliner says, “bring it on.”
“It’s obviously a tough place to play, and they’re a great team,” said Gophers junior Jackson LaCombe, who is one of the team’s three nominees for the Hobey Baker Award. “With their offensive style, for us being behind them and playing the right way is going to be really important, because they’re dangerous.”
For LaCombe and the other Gophers defenders, that means being aware of where the Nittany Lions forwards are at all times, to make sure nobody in a pristine white sweater is able to get lost and find an uncontested route to the Minnesota net.
A loss at last-place Wisconsin knocked the Gophers (21-8-1 overall, 15-4-1 Big Ten) from their perch atop the national polls, but they still hold the all-important top spot in the Pairwise rankings, which would make them the first overall seed in next month’s NCAA playoffs. Coaches never want to lose, but Bob Motzko acknowledged that the defeat at the hands of the Badgers might have been as well-timed as any loss can be, to remind his team of the effort that is required each and every time the puck is dropped.
“It came at a good time for us. You’ll hear a coach say that once in a while, and this one is right on,” Motzko said. “There were some tendencies that we had coming that we had to get cleaned up. This is a weekend now to start cleaning it up.”
The Nittany Lions (19-10-1, 9-10-1) are coming off a bye weekend, which their coach said also came along right when they needed a break.
“For us it was really good timing, because we were as injured as we had been this entire year,” Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky said. “Because of that, I think the bye week was well-timed. Sometimes you’re playing extremely well, you’re healthy, you’re ready to roll and the bye week actually hurts you. But this time we were so banged up that it was good timing for us.”
The series is perhaps more critical for the Lions, who have won just two of their past six games, but still control their own destiny for home ice in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.
The Gophers only regulation loss at home in conference play came at the hands of Gadowsky’s team in November, and while they are near .500 in the conference, the Penn State coach feels his team has improved since they last faced Minnesota.
“I do think we’re a more mentally tough team than we were back then,” he said.
Buckeyes and Wolverines take it outside
It has been a big week for hockey in Ohio, with the announcement of a new arena coming to Ohio State (although whether or not the men’s team will play games at the new facility has not been decided. For now, the Buckeyes (17-11-2, 10-9-1) play at Value City Arena, where they are hoping for one of their bigger crowds of the season with arch-rival Michigan visiting on Thursday. The Wolverines (20-9-1, 12-8-0) are on a seven-game winning streak. Saturday’s series finale will be an outdoor affair, with the teams facing off near Lake Erie at FirstEnergy Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns.
Spartans visit Wisconsin in tight home ice chase
After the tragic mass shooting on the Michigan State campus this week, there is a hope that Spartans hockey can provide a needed distraction for a community where hearts are heavy. A decade into the Big Ten hockey era, the Spartans (15-15-2, 9-11-2) have never won a conference playoff game, but with four games remaining they could host a first round series with a few wins and some help. They travel west to face a Wisconsin team that has clinched seventh place in the conference, but is coming off an upset of top-ranked Minnesota last weekend. The Badgers are 11-19-0 overall and 4-16-0 in the conference.
Notre Dame (14-14-4, 9-10-3) is idle. The Fighting Irish travel to Michigan to close the regular season next weekend.
Gophers weekend details
The games versus Penn State face off at 5:30 p.m. CT on Friday and Saturday at Pegula Ice Arena in State College. Both games will be televised by Big Ten Network, with Jason Ross, Jr. and former Ohio State forward Paul Caponigri on the call.
On radio, the Gophers can be heard on 1130 AM / 103.5 FM in the Twin Cities with Wally Shaver and Frank Mazzocco in their 11th season together describing the action.
The Gophers are 22-17-1 all-time versus the Nittany Lions, which includes a series split earlier this season in Minneapolis. The Gophers have won five of their past six games versus Penn State, including a 3-2 victory in the Big Ten tournament semifinals last season.
Statistics released by College Hockey Inc. this week show the Gophers with the Big Ten’s biggest gain in average home attendance over last season. For the Gophers’ 16 home games thus far, attendance is up by an average of 1,067 fans per game compared to last season, which is 8th in the nation. Not surprisingly, college hockey’s biggest attendance increase belongs to Arizona State, which moved into the new 5,000-seat Mullett Arena at the start of the 2022-23 season. They are up nearly 4,000 fans a game from last year, when the Sun Devils played off-campus in a rink with seating for fewer than 1,000.