MINNEAPOLIS -- When things go wrong on the hockey rink, fans want easy explanations. They want to blame the goalie, or the defense, or the special teams. Or whatever. But hockey is rarely that simple.
For the Minnesota Gophers, who suffered their third consecutive Friday night loss, falling to Penn State 5-3 in the opener of their Big Ten series, it was a little bit of everything that contributed to the trouble.
A pair of goals 58 seconds apart in the third period made the biggest difference on Friday as the Lions rallied for their first win of November, and kept the Gophers searching for answers to their struggles in series openers. Minnesota now has six losses, and five of them have come in the first game of a two-game series.
“That was a disappointing loss. We handed the game away, and we’ve seen that now three Fridays in a row,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said. “We’re doing it (in) a little different ways. Simple backchecks, missed the net...There was enough lack of detail in our game for that to happen.”
Jaxon Nelson’s first career two-goal game went for naught in the loss as the Gophers fell to 7-6-0 overall and 4-3-0 in the Big Ten. They got a goal and two assists from red-hot rookie Matthew Knies and 21 saves from goalie Jack LaFontaine in the loss.
For the Lions (7-5-0, 1-4-0) it was their first win since they beat North Dakota in Nashville at the end of October.
“You’ve got to give our team a lot of credit for gritting it out against a great Minnesota team,” said Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky, who is now 13-4-1 in his last 18 meetings with the Gophers. “Any time you can win here at Mariucci you’ve got to be very happy.”
LaFontaine was solid in the opening period when the Lions showed their signature propensity to shoot from anywhere and everywhere. But a pair of power play goals -- both of them long-range shots through traffic by Penn State center Connor MacEachern -- were ultimately the Gophers’ undoing. Motzko said that generally he has been satisfied with the team’s offense and special teams, after the Gophers scored twice on the power play Friday, but the defense needs to be better.
“We have to have defensemen standing in the way of pucks on the penalty kill, instead of being off just a little bit,” he said, after the Lions scored on both of their man-advantage opportunities. “There are parts of hockey that you have to have detail and structure in your game, and we have it offensively. But when it comes to the other side of it, right now we’re below average.”
After scoring first in their previous six games, for the first time in nearly a month, the Gophers found themselves trailing early, as the Lions made the first mark on the scoreboard. But the Gophers drew even before the first ended, as Knies got his sixth goal of the season.
Jess Myers of The Rink Live recapped Penn State's 5-3 win on Friday night, and offered a theory on the current state of the Gophers.
An early power play in the second period clicked, with Nelson scoring off the rebound of a Knies drive to the net for the Gophers’ first lead of the game. But the Lions got the next two, including a play that seemed cruel and unusual punishment.
With the Gophers on a power play, they got several good scoring chances on Penn State goalie Oskar Autio. Just as the penalty expired, Sammy Walker shot wide of the net and the puck slipped around the boards and out of the zone. It went right to Lions forward Ben Copeland coming out of the penalty box, he was able to grab the puck and score on a breakaway for a 3-2 lead. It was another example of missing the net, which has been a problem for the Gophers on many nights this season.
Nelson re-tied the game late in the second, only to see the Lions take control in the final 20 minutes, scoring those quick-hit goals and killing more than 30 seconds of 5-on-3 power play to maintain the two-goal lead.
One bright spot for the Gophers was the return of freshman forward Chaz Lucius, who had missed the previous six games due to injury.
“Having a freshman that can step up and play an important role is obviously good for us,” said Nelson. “We’ve got to just come out and play the right way.”
Autio finished with 32 saves for the Lions, who snapped a four-game losing streak.
Penn State 5, Minnesota 3
Penn State 1-2-2—5
First period — 1. PSU, Ryan Kirwan 3 (Kevin Wall, Ben Copeland), 6:41. 2. MIN, Matthew Knies 6 (Ben Meyers), 19:28. Penalties — None.
Second period — 3. MIN, Jaxon Nelson 3 (Knies, Meyers), 3:32, (pp). 4. PSU, Connor MacEachern 7 (Jimmy Dowd, Ben Schoen), 4:57, (pp). 5. PSU, Copeland 4 (unassisted), 10:34. 6. MIN, Nelson 4 (Knies, Jackson LaCombe), 18:58, (pp). Penalties — Carson Dyck, PSU (tripping), 2:53; Ryan Johnson, MIN (cross checking), 4:12; Copeland, PSU (hooking), 8:18; Christian Sarlo, PSU (boarding), 17:38.
Third period — 7. PSU, Sarlo 3 (MacEachern, Dowd), 2:10, (pp). 8. PSU, Chase McLane 2 (Tyler Gratton, Oskar Autio), 3:08. Penalties — Matt Staudacher, MIN (cross checking), 1:55; Simon Mack, PSU (holding), 5:42; Kenny Johnson, PSU (interference), 7:11.
Shots on goal — MIN 11-15-9—35; PSU 10-8-8—26. Goalies — Jack LaFontaine, MIN (26 shots-21 saves); Oskar Autio, PSU (35-32). Power plays — MIN 2-of-5, PSU 2-of-2. Referees — Sean Fernandez, Brett DesRosiers. Linesmen — Bill Hancock, Nicholas Bradshaw. Att. — 7,426.