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Opportunistic Nittany Lions knock off top-ranked Gophers in series opener

The Minnesota Gophers coach said his team played 35 minutes of good hockey versus high-flying Penn State. That was not nearly enough to win a 60-minute game, as the Nittany Lions toppled the nation's top-ranked team for the second time in a week.

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Minnesota Gophers forward Garrett Pinoniemi (13) breaks away from Penn State forward Tyler Paquette (23) and Penn State forward Christian Sarlo (10) with the puck in the first period Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022, at 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis.
Jason Wachter / The Rink Live

MINNEAPOLIS — Make no mistake: knocking off the top-ranked team in the nation is a big accomplishment for the Penn State Nittany Lions. Even if they have done it twice in the past week.

On Thursday the Lions played their opportunistic offensive style to build a lead, then produced enough defense and goaltending to hold onto it, knocking off the top-ranked Minnesota Gophers 4-2 in the opener of their two-game set.

Last Friday, the Lions had beaten Michigan, then the top-ranked team in the country, 3-0 in State College, Pa.

“In this league, you’re going to get that opportunity plenty of times,” said Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky after the game. “In this league you’re going to face that a lot.”

The Gophers (7-4-0 overall, 3-2-0 Big Ten) got goals from Bryce Brodzinski and Aaron Huglen, along with 24 saves from goalie Justen Close, but saw their three-game win streak snapped.

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“It was a tale of two games. You get off to a slow start, we were a little frustrated, we found it in the second period, and then unfortunately we handed them two goals,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said. “You can’t do that. They’re playing awful well.”

Connor MacEachern had a pair of goals for the Lions (10-1-0, 4-1-0) who got 24 saves from goalie Liam Souliere.

“It was nice for the coaching staff to see that we tried to play to our identity,” Gadowsky said. “Minnesota, give them a ton of credit. They came back and pushed really hard in the second, and we needed some absolutely massive saves to keep the game close, and then we were fortunate at the end.”

The Lions used their chaotic offensive style to perfection in the opening period, dominating the shots on goal and scoring first on a 2-on-1 rush fueled by a Gophers turnover. But in the middle stanza, the Gophers turned the tables, notching 10 of the second period’s first 11 shots on goal and tying the score when Brodzinski converted after a pretty pass from Logan Cooley.

On their first power play of the game, late in the second, Brodzinski nearly gave his team the lead, beating the Lions’ goalie, but not the goalpost, on a shot from the top of the crease. Instead, the Gophers fell victim to the cruel fates of hockey.

Lions forward Christian Sarlo, coming out of the penalty box, got in alone on Close and beat the goalie with a low shot in the final seconds of the period, putting Penn State up 2-1 heading into the third.

When MacEachern scored on the Lions’ initial shot of the third to open up a 3-1 lead, it looked dire. But the Gophers didn’t go quietly, as Aaron Huglen’s first goal of the season made it a one-score game again. Lions coach Guy Gadowsky challenged for offside on the play, but the goal stood.

North Dakota transfer Ashton Calder sealed it with an empty-net goal with 18.5 to play.

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Taking dictation from the Lions

“Play your game,” legendary Gophers coach Herb Brooks repeated, again and again, to his American team in the final 10 minutes of the Miracle on Ice game in 1980. On Wednesday the modern version of the Gophers preached the need to play their style of hockey right from the start versus a Nittany Lions team known for a shoot-first style that can be deadly for opponents.

It didn’t happen, and instead the Lions did what they wanted to do in the opening 20 minutes, emerging with a lead and sending a message that winning nine of their first 10 games was not a fluke.

“You can’t play them for 35 to 38 minutes. That’s all we played tonight,” Motzko said, the disappointment dripping from every word. “We did not play well those other minutes.”

Still, after that first period, the middle stanza was all Gophers, save for the heroics of Souliere, and some lousy luck in the final seconds when Penn State took a 2-1 lead. After their second conference loss of the season, the Gophers were not ready to blame the hands of fate.

“We did the opposite of our strengths. We were trying to play cute, we were trying to play slow, we weren’t physical enough. We just weren’t ready to go tonight,” Gophers captain Brock Faber said. “It’s tough. It was one of those nights where we just didn’t have it. They wanted it more tonight, plain and simple. From the opening puck drop to the final horn it was their game all the way.”

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Extra pucks

Healthy scratches from the Gophers lineup on Thursday were forwards Carl Fish, Charlie Strobel and Colin Schmidt, and defenseman Matt Staudacher.

U of M officials are urging fans attending Friday night’s 7 p.m. game to arrive early as there are men’s basketball, volleyball and swimming events, in addition to men’s hockey, all at roughly the same time, and a potential parking crunch is expected.

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The Penn State series concludes on Friday night with the Gophers’ final home game of November.

Penn State 4, Minnesota 2

Minnesota 0-1-1—2

Penn State 1-1-2—4

First period — 1. PS, Connor MacEachern 4 (Connor McMenamin, Carter Schade), 6:15. Penalties — None.

Second period — 2. MN, Bryce Brodzinski 3 (Logan Cooley, Justen Close), 2:34. 3. PS, Christian Sarlo 1 (Ashton Calder), 19:54. Penalties — Jimmy Snuggerud, MN (slashing), 12:13; Sarlo, PS (hooking), 17:44.

Third period — 4. PS, MacEachern 5 (unassisted), 0:48. 5. MN, Aaron Huglen 1 (Brock Faber), 4:26. 6. PS, Calder 6 (McMenamin, MacEachern), 19:42, en. Penalties — None.

Shots on goal — MN 4-14-8—26 PS 9-8-11—28. Goalies — Justen Close, MN (27 shots-24 saves); Liam Souliere, PS (26-24). Power plays — MN 0-of-1, PS 0-of-1. Referees — Andrew Bruggeman, Brett DesRosiers. Linesmen — Nicholas Bradshaw, Samuel Shikowsky. Att. — 6,664.

Jess Myers covers college hockey, as well as outdoors, general sports and travel, for The Rink Live and the Forum Communications family of publications. He came to FCC in 2018 after three decades of covering sports as a freelancer for a variety of publications, while working full time in politics and media relations. A native of Warroad, Minn. (the real Hockeytown USA), Myers has a degree in journalism/communications from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He lives in the Twin Cities. Contact Jess via email at jrmyers@forumcomm.com, or find him on Twitter via @JessRMyers. English speaker.
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