The Matchup: No. 7 Minnesota Golden Gophers vs. No. 11 Penn State Nittany Lions
Key Stats: Together, these teams launched over 130 shots on goal in their first two games. Neither team has sparkled on the power play, often the last piece of the puzzle to fall into place. Minnesota’s is 2 of 11 (18.2 percent), PSU’s 1 of 10 (10 percent).
Minnesota is 13-4 all-time against the Nittany Lions, 7-1 at Mariucci since 2014.
This is the earliest Big Ten matchup in the league’s five-year history.
Players to Watch: Gophers junior goalie Eric Schierhorn is set to make a record-setting 78th consecutive start Friday night. Forward Tyler Sheehy takes over as captain with a huge challenge: how to improve over a spectacular sophomore season in which he tallied 53 points, was named a first-team All-American, Big Ten Player of the Year and a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award. Several promising newcomers will bow this weekend, including super-recruit Casey Mittelstadt. Tyler Nanne is eligible to play after sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer rules.
For Penn State, a shot of Smirnov has been invaluable. Sophomore Denis Smirnov recorded his 14th career multi-point game against St. Lawrence. Last season, he was the top-scoring freshman in the country with 47 points. Another sophomore, Peyton Jones, is in goal after stopping 49 of 52 shots in last weekend’s opening games against Clarkson and St. Lawrence.
Why It Matters: Minnesota made NCAA history last season when it captured its sixth straight conference championship (four Big Ten and the last two in the WCHA). If the Gophers expect to do it again in what promises to be the most competitive Big Ten hockey race so far, they’ll have to deal with Penn State. The Lions knocked UM out of the NCAA playoffs last spring and are one of college sports’ most dynamic young franchises.
Penn State nearly cracked the top ten in coaches’ poll voting this week.
Keys for the Gophers:
— Bombs away. When the arena PA announcer intones, “Watch out for flying pucks,” he should direct the warning toward the goalies. Minnesota launched 57 shots in its pair of Ice Breaker games in Duluth last weekend – PSU drilled a whopping 63 shots at Schierhorn (in two overtimes) in its 4-3 win at the NCAA tournament in Detroit last March.
— Control loose pucks. The Nittany Lions shoot from everywhere and that means lots of rebounds and loose pucks whizzing all over the place. How Minnesota corrals all that rubber and hustles it out of its own zone will go a long way toward deciding the outcome of the weekend series
— Playing time for the newcomers. At one point last weekend, the Gophers were shorthanded for five minutes, which is a long time for young guns like Mittelstadt to ride the bench. Head coach Don Lucia needs those young legs moving, not to mention avoiding major penalties.
Ben Clymer and I will call both games on FOX Sports North, joined starting Sunday by former Gopher and Olympic standout Krissy Wendell. Air times are 7 p.m. CDT Friday, 3 p.m. CDT Sunday.
DOUG McLEOD is the five-time Emmy Award-winning play-by-play announcer for Fox Sports and a longtime voice of Division I and NHL hockey. This is his 21st season calling Golden Gopher hockey games.