Golden Gophers Squander 2-0 Lead, Dim Big Ten Title Hopes in Loss to Nittany Lions

(image credit: @GopherHockey on Twitter)

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Minnesota’s opportunity to make a trophy-winning statement disappeared in 31 seconds.

Progress turned into disappointment. On the 40th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice, a game featuring nine Golden Gophers plus head coach Herb Brooks, it was the upstart Penn State Nittany Lions who celebrated an opportunity to win their first-ever Big Ten regular-season title at the expense of the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Nikita Pavlychev and Kevin Wall erased a 2-1 deficit Saturday with third-period goals to give the Nittany Lions a 3-2 win.

“It hurts, especially knowing the situation with the standings and where we sit. We can’t be satisfied with that effort,” Minnesota forward Nate Burke said after the game. “We’ve got to get back to work Monday, ready to play against Michigan.”

The Gophers juggled its forward lineup Saturday after Penn State scored three goals against its bottom-six. It quickly paid off for Minnesota when a Bryce Brodzinski shot rebounded off PSU goaltender Peyton Jones and directly to Sammy Walker, who scored his 11th goal of the season less than three minutes into the game.

Jackson LaCombe made it 2-0 towards the end of the first period when he put back a pass from Burke in the net for his first goal since Jan. 10. Minnesota had several Grade-A chances during the second period to add another, which eventually ended up haunting the Gophers.

“Tonight we had good push, good balance. I thought as good as we were in the first, we had golden chances in the second,” Minnesota head coach Bob Motzko said. “Against a team like this, you have to get to three. We had our chances to do it.”

Evan Barratt cut Minnesota’s lead in half with his 12th goal of the season 12:18 into the second period.

Penn State, which outshot the Gophers 42-23, continued to get chances against Minnesota’s defense and goaltender Jack LaFontaine. The senior ended up facing 99 official shots in two games, but was unable to stop back-to-back plays by Pavlychev and Wall with 11 minutes remaining in regulation.

“We need to learn to hold a 2-1 lead. Everyone’s got to buy in. We can’t have anyone taking the game off,” said Burke, whose team lost for only the third time since the holiday break. “It’s late in the season, it’s too late for that. Our team has been doing really well in the second half of the year so we just have to keep the consistency going.”

LaFontaine finished with 39 saves while Minnesota’s power play went 0-for-3 Saturday.

Despite the lost opportunity and one point on the weekend, Minnesota controls its destiny in the Big Ten race. Both the Gophers and Ohio State sit tied for second with 37 points. Penn State leads with 41 points, but will be idle next weekend while the other six Big Ten schools play.

If it happens, it won’t be a miracle. Just a date that will be remembered well in Hockey Valley.

“We still have a few things we haven’t accomplished. This would be huge for us if we’re able to clinch a (Big Ten regular-season championship),” Pavlychev said.

Minnesota can finish anywhere from first to fifth, which would mean a trip on the road in the Big Ten postseason. The Gophers host Michigan next weekend at Mariucci. Friday’s game is at 7:30 p.m. Central while puck drop Saturday is at 5:00 p.m.

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