Gophers men’s hockey will look for third sweep in upcoming series against Penn State

Freshman Matthew Knies has two goals and two assists in his last three games.

Gophers+men%E2%80%99s+hockey+captain+Sammy+Walker+celebrates+a+goal+he+scored+en+route+to+a+10-0+win+against+Arizona+State+on+Thursday%2C+Jan.+21%2C+2021%2C+at+3M+Arena+at+Mariucci+in+Minneapolis%2C+Minn.

Brad Rempel - Gopher Athletics

Gophers men’s hockey captain Sammy Walker celebrates a goal he scored en route to a 10-0 win against Arizona State on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021, at 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis, Minn.

by Michael Lyne

The No. 7 Gophers men’s hockey team has played against four ranked teams, two of which are currently in the top five in both national polls, throughout their first six series this season.

As the Gophers (7-5) have had a tough stretch of opponents early on in the season, they host unranked Penn State Friday at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 8 p.m., searching for their third series sweep.

Most recently, the Gophers are coming off a home series against Ohio State which the two teams split. The Buckeyes won Friday’s game 4-3, scoring four unanswered, while the Gophers bounced back Saturday evening to earn their first shutout this season in a gritty 2-0 win.

“We just got to realize the good things we were doing,” junior Ben Meyers said on how the Gophers can build off the shutout. “It’s just the little things, [like] getting pucks out of the zone, keeping things simple [and] keeping the game in front of us.”

Gophers head coach Bob Motzko made dramatic changes to the forward lines, as they all had new looks Saturday evening. The changes marked the first time that the first line fourth-years Blake McLaughlin and Sammy Walker and third-year Bryce Brodzinski were separated this season.

However, the Gophers’ new-looking forward lines impressed Motzko. He believes they all played strong and are heading in the right direction; he said Saturday’s win was pretty close to their most complete game this season.

The Gophers have looked like two completely different teams between the first and second games of their series. They are 2-4 on Fridays and 5-1 on Saturdays this season.

“I don’t have a specific answer,” Motzko said of their struggles on Friday nights. “But there’s a little pattern in there where we get loose. That looseness has to come within them to understand it, and then they come back Saturday. So, maybe it takes getting burned a couple of times. [But] we’re doing some good things. We just want to stay this course and turn the screwdriver just a little bit on those Fridays.”

Throughout the early stages of the season, the Gophers have dealt with many injuries. Motzko mentioned it might be the most he’s experienced with the team since he became the head coach during the 2018-19 season, but also said it is no reason behind the way they have played so far.

Freshman Rhett Pitlick battled a shoulder injury early in the season and Meyers has battled through injuries but is now healthy. Freshman Chaz Lucius has missed the past six games, while senior Grant Cruikshank has been out of the lineup the past four. However, Motzko said Tuesday Lucius would be ready to play against Penn State.

Last season, the Gophers played one series against Penn State and swept them as COVID-19 concerns forced the Nittany Lions to cancel their second series.

Penn State (6-5) has yet to win a Big Ten game this season. Most recently, Ohio State and No. 1 Michigan swept them in back-to-back series. Expect them to be playing desperate hockey against the Gophers come next weekend.

“I think they’re a team we need to lock down with what they do,” Pitlick said. “They fly the zone, so we always got to keep in check with our defensive mentality. They are a fast team, so we got to get back to pucks and play good defense.”

Kevin Wall leads the Nittany Lions’ shoot-first mentality attack with a team-high seven goals and 11 points in as many games this season.

Penn State takes a ton of shots, leading the Big Ten with 36.45 shots per game. The Nittany Lions are different from many of the teams the Gophers have played and they will have to be ready for this change in attack, according to Motzko.

“They shoot from everywhere,” Motzko said. “They like to play with speed, they like to get up and down, they like to transition [and] they throw pucks into the neutral zone.”

The Gophers’ Saturday night matchup against Penn State will mark Lee Greseth’s, their equipment manager, 1,000th game with the team.

“Lee is a kind-hearted man,” Motzko said. “He works extremely hard. I sure hope our guys treat him with ultimate respect because he’s earned it … there’s a lot of nights that Lee is here past midnight. I know we appreciate the heck out of what he does for us.”