But with eight straight weekends of Big Ten games ahead of them, that’s what the Minnesota Gophers might have to do on Friday and Saturday. With high-scoring Penn State coming to visit, the Gophers primary challenge is finding a way to counteract all of the offense being generated by the “shoot first, last and always” mentality of the Nittany Lions.
Penn State is ranked in the top 10 nationally and leading the conference by scoring, averaging more than five goals-per-game. That is a full two goals better than second place Notre Dame.
“They’ve got a few lines that can just punch you all game and they keep rolling them. It’s that up-tempo offensive style,” said Gophers co-captain Brent Gates Jr., while hinting that the Gophers might be prepping for a track meet on their massive Olympic-size ice sheet. “If they want to play that way, we can. too.”
Penn State has not played since a 4-4 tie with Princeton on Dec. 15, so the Lions are rested and healthy. But they’re not at full strength, thanks to their own on-ice success.
Evan Barratt, a sophomore from outside Philadelphia who leads the nation in scoring, is in British Columbia skating for Team USA in the World Junior Championship. There’s a chance he could play for a gold medal versus Lions teammate Aarne Talvitie, a freshman who is playing for Finland.
Alex Limoges, a sophomore from outside Washington, D.C., who is tied for the Big Ten scoring lead, will be on the ice in Minneapolis. Penn State’s coach says others are eager to fill any holes Barratt and Talvitie have left.
“We’re without Evan and Aarne, who is playing for Finland, but it’s a team game. It’s certainly not about who’s not in your lineup, it’s about who is,” Lions coach Guy Gadowsky said on Thursday. “Our team is a lot more than just two guys, so this gives others an opportunity to step up and play in the roles that they normally would.”
Gadowsky is in his seventh season in Happy Valley after getting hired in 2011 as Penn State was prepping to make the jump to Division I. That move led to the formation of Big Ten Hockey and the massive realignment of the sport’s western conferences.
While some predicted that the Lions would be buried by the more established programs in the conference and may take a decade or more to be competitive, Gadowsky has been a strong recruiter and gotten them into the NCAA tournament the last two seasons. Penn State won the Big Ten tournament in 2017.
On Nov. 10 Penn State scored 11 goals in a game at Robert Morris and moved to 8-1-0. Since then the Lions have cooled, having gone 3-4-2 prior to the holiday break.
For the returning Gophers, their season ended with four consecutive losses to the Lions. Those bad memories linger, 10 months later.
“They swept us two weekends in a row and ended our season. We didn’t forget that,” said Rem Pitlick, who leads the Gophers offensively with eight goals and nine assists. “They’re a good hockey team. They have good personnel and play hard. They really swarm you, and that’s difficult to play against a hard-working team, so we need to match that and we look forward to the challenge.”
The Gophers’ coaches spent this week looking for ways to counter Penn State with a more cautious version of that offense-first hockey.
“We have to be responsible. That’s probably the biggest thing if you want to go up and down the rink with someone,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said. “You can’t turn pucks over and you can’t take penalties…When you make mistakes against them, they get to offense really fast.”
The implication is that even though it’s dangerous, there just might be a way to successfully race a lion.