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Gophers men’s hockey will look to continue strong play down the stretch as they face Penn State

Minnesota swept back-to-back series for the first time this season after sweeping Ohio State this past weekend.
Defenseman+Ryan+Johnson+skates+away+from+his+opponent+with+the+puck+during+the+Gophers%E2%80%99+matchup+against+Notre+Dame%2C++Oct.+29%2C+2021.+The+Gophers+won%2C+4-1.
Image by Ethan Fine
Defenseman Ryan Johnson skates away from his opponent with the puck during the Gophers’ matchup against Notre Dame, Oct. 29, 2021. The Gophers won, 4-1.

For the first time this season, the Gophers men’s hockey team swept back-to-back series en route to four consecutive wins, their longest win streak, and have now put themselves in a better position to win the Big Ten regular season title.

Minnesota sits in second place in the conference table with 43 points, trailing Michigan — the No. 2 team in the nation — by two points as each team has four games remaining. They have surpassed the Buckeyes, who have two games left, both against the Wolverines, by one point in the Big Ten standings.

The Gophers, at the very least, will have home-ice advantage in the first round of the Big Ten tournament. However, if they surpass Michigan and finish in first place in the conference, they will earn a first-round bye.

After the back-to-back sweeps, Minnesota ranks at No. 5/6 in the two national college hockey polls, their highest ranking since Nov. 1.

“Our guys are just playing good hockey. People are picking up the slack. Our freshmen are scoring. Our defense is jumping into the offense. We’re getting goaltending,” Gophers head coach Bob Motzko said. “It’s been a two-week snapshot that’s been very good.”

The last two series of the Gophers’ 2021-2022 campaign will come against two of the conference’s lower-end teams in Penn State (14-15-1) and Wisconsin (9-20-3).

Minnesota’s entire lineup has been rolling, remaining undefeated without three of their top players in junior co-captain Ben Meyers, sophomore Brock Faber and freshman Matthew Knies. The trio will most likely not be back from the Olympics in time for this weekend’s series.

“I love the demeanor of our group. We just go to the next. It’s been that way all year with this group,” Motzko said. “There’s a lot of people doing good things.”

With Meyers and Knies overseas, freshman Chaz Lucius needed to find a new pair of linemates to mesh with. So, Motzko paired him with his freshmen counterparts in Aaron Huglen and Rhett Pitlick.

Ever since the line came to fruition in the Michigan State series, they have had immediate and important success together for the Gophers down the stretch.

The freshmen trio has accounted for six of Minnesota’s 15 goals over the past four games while also combining for a total of nine assists.

The Big Ten announced Tuesday that Pitlick was the conference’s Second Star of the Week after recording two goals and two assists in the Ohio State series. Half of his 14 collegiate points have come in his past four games.

“I would say my linemates are my key. I think all of us have great chemistry and have been able to show that,” said Pitlick, who recorded his first career multi-goal game Saturday. “I’ve really enjoyed playing with them.”

Sophomore Carl Fish continues to make the most of more ice time as he makes up one-half of the newly defensive duo between him and junior Jackson LaCombe, who has kicked his game back into All-American form from last season.

Fish and LaCombe first paired together six games ago in the Notre Dame series. Since then, they have combined for 12 assists.

“He is getting more comfortable. He was in and out of the lineup because of the depth back there,” Motzko said. “[Now] he’s putting heat on some other guys for playing time if we stay healthy back there. We’re very happy with him.”

Fish and the rest of the defensemen for the Gophers in Friday night’s lineup against Penn State will see plenty of ice time with Faber and senior Ben Brinkman out of the lineup.

On Monday, Brinkman received a one-game suspension from the Big Ten conference for slew-footing Ohio State’s Travis Treloar with under a minute left in Saturday night’s 5-1 victory.

On the other hand, there’s a possibility junior Jaxon Nelson might return to Minnesota’s forward group this weekend after he has missed the last 11 games due to a leg injury.

This weekend’s series against Penn State marks the Gophers’ last before Faber, Knies and Meyers return to the lineup.

“They’re unbelievable players. I think [their absences] provided an opportunity for guys to step up into bigger roles. It’s forcing guys to work really hard,” junior Bryce Brodzinski said. “It’s been paying off for our team. We’ve added a lot of grit to our lineup.”

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