Heading into Thursday night’s season opener Penn State hockey had beaten Minnesota 12 times in the last 15 meetings.
By any measure this 12-2-1 streak over 15 games was as a dominant as they come. At times the games were not even close as Penn State scored at will. Last season the Nittany Lions ran it up against Minnesota, outscoring the Gophers 14-5 during a two-game road sweep.
In the greater context this role reversal is even more remarkable when you consider the all-time series between the two programs sat at 15-15-1 heading into Thursday. Minnesota had dominated Penn State in the early years of the Nittany Lions’ fledgling program. It wasn’t until 2017 that the tables began to turn as the quality of play at Pegula Ice Arena improved.
On Thursday night the potential for things swinging back towards Minnesota, or in the very least towards a more back-and-forth series seemed in the cards. The Gophers entered the contest among the favorites to win the Big Ten, the Nittany Lions picked by the conference coaches to finish last.
One team was bringing back its goalie, and much of the talent around him [Minnesota has 14 players drafted by NHL teams on the roster.] The other had lost nearly all of its established veteran to the professional ranks or graduation [losing nearly 60% of its scoring in the process] and was working in a fairly inexperienced goalie to replace the most successful netminders in the program’s history.
And while one game, let alone the program’s first in 271 days, is not indicative of how the larger trends may pan out or how development and growth will happen over the course of the season, Thursday night was more or less confirmation that what you might have suspected was in fact reality on Day 1 as Minnesota won 5-1.
In the first it was a feeling out period, but even then the Gophers found ways to control the pace of play. Minnesota won 14-of-17 faceoffs and managed two Grade A chances that new Penn State goalie Oskar Autio snagged out of the air to keep the game scoreless at 0-0 after 20 minutes. Autio’s play and Penn State’s good looking, but ultimately scoreless powerplay attempt the lone bright spots in an otherwise unremarkable frame.
The second period was more of the same until two Gopher goals in roughly a five minute span midway through the second period opened the floodgates, Jonny Sorenson and Scott Reedy beating Autio both in close relatively close to the net.
It was Kevin Wall, the last Nittany Lion to score during the 2019-20 season, who was the first to score for Penn State during the 2020-21 campaign with inside a minute to go in the second period. Despite an otherwise lopsided effort on the ice, Penn State had found a way to stay within reach.
In the long run that did mean much, at least not on Thursday. Minnesota took advantage of a strange bounce off the boards just 3:53 into the third period to put the Gophers ahead 3-1. A beautiful move by Sampo Ranta effectively ended the contest at 4-1 with just under 10 minutes in regulation.
With a fairly young team on paper and a young team in reality on the ice, Penn State will learn from Thursday night’s loss and move forward. A four games in six days stretch will leave the Nittany Lions with little time to sulk over a season-opening loss, an afternoon puck drop on Friday with even less time to correct mistakes.
In the long run nothing about the Nittany Lions’ defeat was all that surprising, but Penn State will hope that the tides don’t turn too hard, and that the Gophers begin to rattle off their own lopsided run in the series.