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With Penn State shooting from all angles, Gophers prepare to narrow the Nittany Lions' chances

Off to their best season start in program history and quickly climbing the national rankings, Penn State comes to Minneapolis with their "shoot first" style that at times has given the Minnesota Gophers fits. And for the Nittany Lions, facing the nation's top-ranked team is nothing new.

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With help from defenseman Jackson LaCombe, Minnesota goalie Justen Close thwarted a scoring attempt by Penn State forward Christian Sarlo during the Gophers' 3-1 win over the Nittany Lions on Friday, Feb. 18, 2022 at Pegula Ice Arena in State College, Pa.
Mark Selders / Penn State Athletics

MINNEAPOLIS — In what would prove to be their final game of the 2021-22 season, the Penn State Nittany Lions out-played the Minnesota Gophers for long stretches of a Big Ten playoff game. Coach Guy Gadowsky and company may have deserved a better fate than a Sammy Walker goal with less than three minutes to play, which lifted the Gophers to a 3-2 win, and sent the Lions home for the off-season.

As he prepares to lead his team into the Gophers den for a Thursday-Friday series, Gadowsky is secretive about what they have been focusing on to prep for Minnesota, but admits that last March is on their minds.

“I’m not going to tell you exactly what we’re looking at, but there are a couple things that cost us last year against them,” Gadowsky said this week. “What we’re looking for as a coaching staff is to see if we’ve learned a lesson and if we’ve changed those things. I’m not going to tell you what they are, but I guess the answer is I’m looking forward to see if we’ve learned a lesson from last year.”

They play a different style than anyone you see. I know it messed me up for a couple years. And you have to deliberately play different against them.
Bob Motzko

If there is a lesson to be had about facing the top-ranked team in the nation, as the Gophers (7-3-0 overall, 3-1-0 Big Ten) are after last weekend’s sweep of Notre Dame, it’s nothing new for the Lions. Last weekend Michigan was the top-ranked team in the country and fell off that perch when Penn State beat them on Friday in State College.

If the Lions’ pre-series focus is a secret, the Gophers see no secrets in the game they are expecting from Gadowsky’s team. Since Penn State (9-1-0, 3-1-0) became a program a decade ago, they have been known as a “shoot first, shoot again, shoot from anywhere” team, which presents a challenge to opponents. Gophers coach Bob Motzko was 1-6-1 versus Penn State in his first two seasons at Minnesota, but has gone 6-1-0 against the Lions since then.

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Minnesota freshman forward Aaron Huglen worked a puck through a crowd of Penn State defenders during a 4-2 Gophers win over the Nittany Lions on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, at 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis.
Brace Hemmelgarn / University of Minnesota Athletics

“We want to defend the middle, and if they’re taking shots from outside the scoring area, that’s fine. We have to control the quality of shots that come in,” he said. “We do that best by having the puck and possessing it and transitioning the puck. They play a different style than anyone you see. I know it messed me up for a couple years. And you have to deliberately play different against them.”

Penn State, which was picked for the lower half of the Big Ten in the preseason polls, is off to the best start in program history, but the Lions have played seven of their 10 games at home in the compact, noisy Pegula Ice Arena thus far. Gadowsky admits that a trip to Minnesota where a big, hostile crowd awaits will be a great test for his team.

“I’m looking forward to seeing our response, because … we are so spoiled here. It is an incredibly fun atmosphere number one, but it’s motivating as well. It’s helpful. It’s very helpful,” he said. “This will be a different experience for us, but we’re looking forward to it and we’re curious to see how we respond.”

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As for their opponent being atop the national polls, again, that’s something the Lions are getting used to.

“We’re facing the number-one team in the nation for the second straight week. That’s fine,” Gadowsky said. “That’s what you get in the Big Ten, and that’s what we’re going to be facing for the rest of the year.”

Weekend details

Thursday and Friday’s games versus Penn State are 7 p.m. CT starts and will be televised by Bally Sports North. Former Gophers standout Ben Clymer will serve as analyst for both games with Sam Ekstrom on play-by–play.

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.

Postgame interviews with coach Motzko and Gophers players can be seen live, roughly 10 minutes after the final horn on The Rink Live’s YouTube page .

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The Gophers’ rivalry with Penn State is their newest in the conference. They first played Jan. 12-13, 2014 with the top-ranked Gophers winning 3-2 and 6-2 in State College, Pa. Minnesota leads the all-time series with the Nittany Lions 21-17-1, and the Gophers were 4-1-0 head-to-head in five meetings with the Lions last season.

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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