Shorthanded Gophers scrap and claw for a 3-1 win at Penn State
Missing two players to injury, one to a suspension and three to the Olympics, the Minnesota Gophers still managed to get their coach his first win at Penn State on Friday, keeping pace in the race for the Big Ten title.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – A few hours up the road from the historic battlefields of Gettysburg, an undermanned rag-tag band of soldiers from the North mounted a defensive stand, while they waited for reinforcements to arrive.
No, that is not a tale from the Civil War, but rather a description of what happened at Penn State on Friday, Feb. 18 as a shorthanded group of Minnesota Gophers held off wave after wave of attacking Nittany Lions, and skated away with a vitally important 3-1 win.
Jack Perbix had a pair of goals – one to break a deadlock in the second period, and the other into an empty net – as the Gophers won at Pegula Ice Arena for the first time under head coach Bob Motzko.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our guys … We were short-handed up front, shorthanded on the back side. Everybody stood up and was a part of that tonight,” Motzko said. “They were throwing everything at us and Justen (Close) was great in goal for us tonight. He made a couple saves that really stopped momentum from turning. That’s what you need when you’re on the road.”
It was the fifth consecutive win by the Gophers (20-11-0 overall, 15-6-0 Big Ten) who got a career-high 37 saves from Close to keep the heat on conference-leading Michigan. Rhett Pitlick also scored for the Gophers to give them an early lead.
The already thin Gophers lineup, which was missing one injured forward, three players returning from the Olympics and one suspended defenseman, got even slimmer before the game began. Freshman forward Chaz Lucius warmed up for the game but suffered an injury that kept him out of the lineup. That left the Gophers coaches rotating right wingers on the team’s third line.
The potential good news is that the trio of Olympians – defenseman Brock Faber, forward Ben Meyers and forward Matthew Knies – were en route to central Pennsylvania on Friday evening, and may be available to play in the series finale on Saturday. And the Gophers will get defenseman Ben Brinkman back after the senior served a one-game suspension on Friday.
Five years to the day after the Gophers’ last win at Penn State, a 4-3 overtime triumph with Rem Pitlick netting the game-winner, his younger brother quieted the crowd, at least briefly. Rhett Pitlick’s first period goal was his fourth of the season, all of which have come in the past five games. The goal came after a set-up pass from Sam Rossini, who was playing in just his third game since taking a leave of absence from his job as a fiscal analyst a month ago to re-join the team as a graduate student.
“It’s been crazy. I was working a 9-to-5 desk job a few weeks ago and now I’m back with the boys. It feels good to be back,” Rossini said. “We got the puck in the corner and got it up to our D-men and we know what to do with the puck. I was able to deliver a shot there and Pitlick found the rebound. It was great.”
The Lions tied it up with a minute left in the first period, but ran into penalty trouble in the middle period. While the Gophers did not score on their two second period power plays, they threw 20 shots on the Penn State net and took advantage of an ugly turnover to take the lead. Trying to clear his defensive zone, Lions center Ben Copeland instead put the puck right on the tape of Colin Schmidt, who fed Perbix for a tap-in at the goalmouth. For Schmidt, it was his first point as a Gopher.
“Before the game we talked to each other and said we were going to have to get a greasy one,” said Perbix. “As soon as (Schmidt) got that pass…he said, ‘If I would’ve shot that, it would’ve been too pretty.’ So we had to get a little greasy. On the bench we were dying laughing, because the inside joke came true.”
Perbix’s empty net goal came on a pass from Blake McLaughlin, which gave McLaughlin 100 points for his career. Liam Souliere had 32 saves for the Nittany Lions (14-16-1, 5-15-1) who lost their fourth in a row.
“I’ve said before that we were a little inexperienced and fragile, and that happened again today,” said Lions coach Guy Gadowsky. “We find ways to shoot ourselves in the foot, meaning making big mistakes at a bad time.”
Michigan won 5-3 at home over Ohio State on Friday and remains two points ahead of the Gophers in the race for the Big Ten title. Both teams have three games to play. The Penn State series concludes on Saturday evening with a 5 p.m. CT rematch between the Gophers and Nittany Lions.