Usually, college hockey programs only have a handful of practices before the season begins.
This year, with the delay of COVID-19 moving the start date from early fall to mid-November, the team now had ample time to work on getting into mid-season form. For Minnesota, that looked like the case after the team completed two convincing victories over No. 10 Penn State on Thursday and Friday.
“Overall, very happy with the weekend,” head coach Bob Motzko said. “There’s a lot there we can work on and get better with.”
No. 11 Minnesota had roughly a month and a half to get a team that was largely intact from last year to prepare and jump right into the 2020-21 campaign. At one point, Motzko had said he needed to give the team some time off because they were so close to game ready, he didn’t want to overextend the team before the games actually started.
The Gophers looked like they used that time wisely after the series sweep over the Nittany Lions. Thursday’s opener featured a decisive 4-1 victory, while Friday’s game was a much closer 3-2 finish.
Despite the first period of Thursday’s game, Minnesota executed well throughout that contest. With both teams finding their legs after practicing with just their own team for so long, it makes some sense that the teams would need a few minutes to sort out playing against another team again. The Gophers prevailed through hard-nosed hockey, especially in the second period, where they score two very similar goals.
The first was from sophomore Jonny Sorenson. He waited right in front of the net and put home a rebound pretty much in the blue paint. The second was very similar, but this time with Scott Reedy right in front. He corralled a loose puck and sent it by the Penn State goaltender to widen Minnesota’s lead to 2-0. Motzko said after the game that those goals are the ones the team wants to score more often than some of the fancier, finesse goals. The conference has always been one with older, bigger players and Minnesota had struggled to get those goals in tight in recent seasons.
With that dominant second period in the scoring chart, the Gophers dominated possession and that started with their significant advantage in the faceoff circle, which was apparent through the whole game. Minnesota won 37 of 55 faceoffs and made sure to start with the puck as much as possible to gain the lead. Though Friday’s game didn’t showcase the same large margin in the faceoff dot, Minnesota still took the advantage 32-62.
When Penn State did have the puck on either night, Minnesota’s forecheck was dogged in pursuit. In Friday’s game, Cullen Munson was a pest in the Nittany Lions’ zone, forcing the defenders to make some quick decisions.
“We had a couple guys that were off [Friday,]” Motzko said. “Our forecheck, I thought, was better tonight at times. I also think Penn State did a better job transitioning.”
In Friday’s game, the scoring was a bit different, showing the Gophers certainly have the ability to both finesse their way to victories as well as grind them out in front of the net. Each of the second and third goals for Minnesota had captain Sammy Walker‘s hands on them. He got on a breakaway sprung on a pass from Matt Staudacher for the first and knocked it behind the goaltender right as the first period was about to come to a close.
“I saw it was about ten seconds [left]” Walker said. “Yeah, I think I heard everyone in the stadium [yelling to ‘shoot’].”
The third goal began on a defensive play from Walker, but ended with a brilliant finish from veteran sniper Brannon McManus.
The nifty, no-look chip pass from Walker and the patience from McManus was sure to astound anyone, but the finish with McManus’ calmness in ripping the shot bar down into the net.
While this start means that Minnesota looked like it benefitted from those plentiful practices thanks to the delayed season, the team has just two days to rest until the next battle against Ohio State on Monday and Tuesday next week.