The Minnesota Golden Gophers couldn’t have looked more outmatched in the first game of the best-of-three Big Ten quarterfinal round on Friday night.
Somehow, though, the Gophers came through on Saturday, and again on Sunday in a 3-2 victory to take the series 2-1 and move on to the one-game semifinal round against the Penn State Nittany Lions.
“We had our meeting at … 11:00. Our guys were ready to play at 11:00 [this morning],” head coach Bob Motzko said. “We didn’t know where they went for the past few weeks, but we knew we were going to be good tonight. They’re just a goofy, young group and they were fired up at 11:00.”
Three games in three days could take a toll, but Minnesota just got better as the weekend went on. A three-goal second period lifted the Gophers to victory, including two power-play markers from freshman Ben Meyers.
Though Minnesota gave up the first goal of the game, the team pressed on until the second period. There the Gophers found some power plays to work with. Meyers scored both of Minnesota’s power-play goals — both were similar shots that made it over the shoulder of Notre Dame goaltender Cale Morris.
“He’s a really good goalie, he’s got great instincts, so if a guy is sliding over a lot, top corners are usually what’s open,” Meyers said. “That was what we needed to score.”
While one goal came in tight on Morris, the other came from the top of the left circle where he ripped it over the glove hand of Notre Dame’s netminder. The trend continued off the power play with Minnesota’s second goal, an even-strength tally from one of Minnesota’s most reliable forwards.
Scott Reedy was back to centering wingers Brannon McManus and Sampo Ranta and with that came dynamic offensive plays from the trio. On one that resulted in a goal, Reedy stormed into the zone through the middle of the ice, then had the wherewithal to leave a nifty drop pass for Ranta, who cut across and shot the puck right past Morris.
Overall, Minnesota’s scoring chances came in an offensively dominant second period that saw 25 shots attempted on Notre Dame’s net. The Gophers needed it because the third period, like Saturday’s game, was all pressure from the Irish. Minnesota mustered two shots and four shot attempts in the third while Notre Dame peppered Gophers goaltender Jack LaFontaine to try and erase the two-goal deficit.
“Honestly, defensively, I thought it was the best we’ve played, if not this weekend, the whole year,” LaFontaine said. “I think I saw maybe like 14 [shots] and some of those were dump in shots.”
The Gophers are still alive. Since Saturday, they have continually extended their season by one game after each previous contest. This series victory on Sunday was no different.
Now the team moves on to face a familiar foe against Penn State on the Nittany Lions’ home rink. Though the Gophers tied and lost their last trip out to Pennsylvania, the team said there were opportunities to get victories there.
In other words, Minnesota has some demons to exorcise in a place it has historically struggled, though the team was up for the challenge after Sunday’s win.
“We had two third-period leads against them last time we played them,” Meyers said. “It’s going to be a great game and we’re really excited.”