And then there was one.
After Friday night’s 5-0 victory over the Penn State Nittany Lions, the Gophers only have one game remaining in the regular season.
The Gophers penultimate contest at home in Mariucci Arena was a relatively uneventful affair. Minnesota jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first period thanks to goals by senior forward Kyle Rau, sophomore forward Justin Kloos and sophomore forward Hudson Fasching, and skated out the victory from there.
"First period, we played outstanding," Kloos said. "That’s as good as we’ve played all year."
The Nittany Lions rarely threatened, and when they did, junior goaltender Adam Wilcox was ready. Wilcox made 18 saves in his 34th start of the season, notching the 12th shutout of his career.
"I thought our team played well," Wilcox said. "Our forwards are backchecking, like [freshman forward Jack] Glover had a great backcheck there at the end when we had a breakdown. Our D are blocking shots, [freshman defenseman Ryan] Collins had a couple blocked shots there. I thought overall as a team defensively, we played as good as we have all year."
The win moved the Gophers into a tie for first place in the Big Ten conference with a game remaining, and put them tied for 13th in the PairWise rankings. The Gophers will attempt to reverse their trend of sluggish second games of series tomorrow against Penn State. During the game the Gophers six seniors will be honored: Rau, forwards Seth Ambroz, Travis Boyd, Christian Isackson and Sam Warning, and defenseman Ben Marshall.
1. Big Ice Sheet
That seemed to be the takeaway after the first period at Mariucci Arena, after the Gophers worked to a 3-0 lead. Penn State struggled to adjust to Mariucci’s Olympic Ice, allowing the Gophers to skate around the team to a victory.
"I thought we were the slower team," Penn State head coach Guy Gadowsky said. "I thought we didn’t generate chances."
Gadowsky refused to blame the rink after the loss, saying it was not a factor. But the Gophers advantage in speed was more evident than it was when the two team's played on a smaller sheet at Pegula Ice Arena three weekends ago.
The Gophers speed was even noticeable on the penalty kill, where despite a man advantage the Nittany Lions often struggled to create space. Penn State went 0-5 on the power play Friday, never taking advantage of an opportunity to get back in the game.
2. Taking Shots Away
The Mariucci ice seemed to flummox the Penn State offense, which wasn’t able to do what it does best: take shots.
The Nittany Lions have been a high volume shot team all year, averaging 35 shots per games in their earlier series against the Gophers. Friday, Penn State only had 18 shots reach the net.
"We played really good defensively," Rau said. "They average 40 shots a game and we cut that in half. Our foundation has always been defense so anytime we can go into the second to last game of the regular season with a good defensive performance it feels good.
The Gophers emphasized defense coming into the weekend, making adjustments from their earlier series against the Nittany Lions on their home ice.
"I thought our D had tremendous gaps tonight," Kloos said. "We forced them to dump it a lot and we had great retrievals. I think we blocked shots well…Sometimes when we were in Penn State they hemmed us in the zone a couple times and they would get five or six shots in a minute. I don’t think they had many of those sequences tonight."
3. Top Line Soars
The Gophers top line Rau, Fasching and freshman Leon Bristedt seemed to only play half the ice Friday night.
But that’s just because Penn State could never move out of their own zone when the trio hit the ice.
The three each tallied a goal in the contest, with Rau leading the way with three total points. The line also created several other quality scoring chances during the contest as well.
Fasching in particular became immovable when he got the puck along the boards, leading to sustained forechecks and big penalty kills for the Gophers.
"Obviously, we played well," Rau said. "They have some big [defenseman] and Bristedt and Fasching were really good down low."
Each weekend a different Gophers line has seemed to step up and carry the load for the team. Against Ohio State and Michigan it was the team’s senior line. In Penn State it was the team’s fourth line. Last weekend at Ohio State it was the team’s third line. Friday, it was the first lines’ turn.
4. Chaotic Ending
Sophomore forward Vinni Lettieri scored the Gophers fifth goal with just under three minutes remaining. Things got hectic form there.
After the goal, Letteri was hit from behind and Penn State’s Scott Conway was ejected from the game with a five minute major and a game misconduct. The chippiness continued for the rest of the contest as a minute and a half later Penn State’s Patrick Koudys shoved Collins’ head from behind and was taken to the box.
"We’ll deal with that. It’s not what we’re about," Gadowsky said. "At the end, we were very mentally weak letting our frustration getting the better of us and as a result doing stupid things."
Head coach Don Lucia said Lettieri was fine after the game.
"I mean, they were probably just trying to send a message for tomorrow," Rau said. "We’re all healthy, we’re all fine so not a big deal."
5. Gophers Not in Control of Big Ten
Despite the Gophers win, a win out in East Lansing prevents them from controlling their final fate in the Big Ten.
Michigan defeated Michigan State 5-3 on Friday night, meaning the Gophers are Wolverines are tied atop the Big Ten standings with 36 points apiece in conference play.
Michigan is currently in control of the top seed in the Big Ten Tournament due to having more wins in the conference, so for an outright Big Ten title and the tournament’s top seed the Gophers are going to need a Michigan loss or tie tomorrow at Yost.
And of course, the Gophers are going to need a win of their own. Two weekend wins have been elusive for the Gophers recently, as their last three series began with victories but ended in defeats.
"I think we’ve got to go into it like a championship game," Wilcox said. "Fortunately we’ve put ourselves in a position to win and unfortunately we haven’t won it on Saturdays. Now it’s back at it again."