Preview: No. 9 Penn State Starts the New Year on the Road Against Minnesota

By Sam Watson on January 4, 2019 at 4:20 pm
Penn State Hockey

RLR Staff

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Minnesota Golden GophersMinnesota Golden Gophers
6-7-4 (3-2-3 B1G)
ROSTER / SCHEDULE

9 p.m. ET – Friday Jan. 4 (ESPNU)

8 p.m. ET - Saturday Jan. 5 (Fox Sports North)
3M Arena at Mariucci
MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA

Game 1: LIVE STREAMGAMETRACKER Game 2: LIVE STREAM | GAMETRACKER
Read: Talvitie sets up game winning goal for Finland over Canada

Hockey is back and thank goodness for that. The ninth-ranked Nittany Lions open up the spring semester with a series at the unranked Minnesota Gophers. Every game during the season is important, but with Penn State sitting sixth in the Big Ten standings, getting points out of the weekend is crucial to keep from falling too far behind. 

Scouting the gophers

There is no love lost between Penn State and Minnesota, which is weird because for as long as Penn State has been a team, Minnesota fans have been telling Penn State fans that our program is just a glorified club hockey program. Minnesota's players have even gone on record saying that they hate Penn State. I guess that's the way it goes when you lose to the same team four games in a row before missing the NCAA tournament by one spot. 

This season has not gone according to plan for the Gophers. After starting out strong with a series win against Minnesota-Duluth, the Gophers have split every other series of the fall semester and loses against Ferris State, St. Lawrence, and Michigan State have pushed them outside of the top 20 in the coaches poll and the pairwise rankings. Minnesota's problem has been consistency, and they'll need to find some form of it if they hope to get back in the push for the NCAA tournament. 

Forwards Outlook

The usual class of characters are leading the way for Minnesota offensively. Rem Pitlick and Tyler Sheehy have 17 and 14 points, respectively, through the first 17 games of the season. Besides Pitlick and Sheehy, the Gophers have two other players with double-digit points in Brent Gates Jr. and Sammy Walker. Beyond those four players, the scoring has not been easy. The Gophers are ranked 34th in scoring with 2.70 GPG compared to Penn State's first overall ranking at 5.17 goals per game. Minnesota is capable of putting up four or five goals in a single game, but they aren't threatening to do so every time they step on the ice.

Defensive Outlook

Senior Jack Sadek leads the defensive group for the Gophers. He has eight points, 24 shots, and a -3 plus/minus. Tyler Nanne and Ben Brinkman also turned in solid first halves to the season. Nanne has 6 points and a 2 plus/minus, and Brinkman has 5 points and a 5 plus/minus. Besides once giving up seven goals to Michigan State, Minnesota's team defense hasn't been bad. It's averaging 2.59 goals a game which isn't elite, but is definitely respectable in the Big Ten. Again, the Gopher's problem this season has been that they can't score enough to win consistently. 

Goaltender Outlook

Minnesota has two solid goaltenders in Eric Schierhorn and Mat Robson. Both goalies have seen regular time this season with Schierhorn playing in seven games and Robson playing in 12. The numbers between the two goalies are fairly even. Schierhorn has a 2.10 GAA and .912 save percentage, and Robson a 2.69 GAA and .912 save percentage. Although Robson has won four games and Schierhorn has only won two, we could see either or both goalies this weekend, especially if Penn State lights up the score board. 

Keys to a Penn State Win

Penn State is without Hobey Baker candidate Evan Barratt and Team Finland captain Aarne Talvitie, who will both again be playing in the World Junior tournament this weekend. The pair was also missing in Penn State's tie-that-felt-like-a-loss against Princeton to close out December. Towards the end of that game is was obvious the Nittany Lions were gassed, and Princeton took advantage. Penn State will need all four of its lines to keep that from happening against Minnesota. Transfer Evan Bell is finally eligible after sitting out the fall semester, and is sure to make an immediate impact in a defensive unit that has somewhat struggled this season. If Penn State can replicate the defense it played against Notre Dame and forget entirely the defense it played against Princeton, good things will happen this weekend. 

Predictions

Sam: This series has Brandon Biro written all over it. Next year's captain (Brandon, if you're reading, please stay) always seems to rise up during high profile games that tend to also be chippy, and I'm really hoping he takes over. I don't think we're going to see Penn State run out of gas against Minnesota like it did against Princeton, but I am still worried about the goaltending situation. Penn State will score plenty this weekend and get a split. Game 1: 5-3 Nits. Game 2: 3-2 Gophers. 

Kaitlyn: Remember when Penn State swept the Casey Mittelstadt-led Gophers in four-straight games in the Big Ten quarterfinals last season? Man, that was fun. We should do that again.

Anyway, Minny has split just about every Big Ten series matchup its played so far this season, except for two odd ties vs. conference power Ohio State, so having success against it again is within the Lions’ reach. Smirnov always goes off against this team as well, averaging more than a point per game. The problem is they’re missing Barratt, who lit up the Gophers last year, and Talvitie, who brings such wealth of depth to the lineup. Minnesota also has that damn big ice, and Penn State’s kryptonite has been allowing breakaways. I’m calling for a split. Penn State can’t adjust for its losses in Game 1 and loses 4-3, but it figures them out in Game 2 and goes on to win 5-2. I hope I’m wrong and it sweeps them again.

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