Nittany Lions gain advantage in best-of-3

UNIVERSITY PARK — Following last weekend’s sweep of Minnesota with all the goals, physicality, taunting and with home-ice in the Big Ten tournament on the line, this weekend’s Big Ten quarterfinals between Penn State and Minnesota was expected to be intense.

Game 1 didn’t disappoint, as the Nittany Lions were able to hold off the Golden Gophers, winning 5-3, taking Game 1 in a best-of-three.

Hours before the puck dropped, Penn State sophomore center Nikita Pavlychev was declared out for the game, which came as a blow to the Nittany Lions in neutralizing Casey Mittelstadt last weekend as his line scored just once. Brett Murray, who had played just one game since Dec. 2, replaced Pavlychev on his line and earned the start.

Mittelstadt and the Golden Gophers took advantage of Pavlychev’s absence and an Eric Autio tripping penalty as Mittelstadt sniped the opening goal past Jones 11 minutes in.

This was first time Penn State trailed to Minnesota in their last three meetings, however the Lions dug deep and responded within five minutes as Murray and his line started to settle in.

After a scramble to the right of the net with Murray and Alex Limoges involved, Denis Smirnov got the puck and found a wide open Cole Hults, who beat Mat Robson to tie the game at one. This was Hults first goal since October 20, 2017 when Penn State hosted American International.

Murray’s play at the center position impressed coach Guy Gadowsky, considering Murray plays winger.

“He won the first face-off and then I thought he played really well in his defensive zone,” said Gadowsky. “He’s a big tough guy, I think he fits there when Pav’s out. I thought he killed well, for him to come into a playoff game against a great team, I thought he played extremely well.”

The bad blood from the weekend before did boil over early as Minnesota center Darian Romanko tossed from the game after checking Eric Autio behind in the offensive zone and as assessed a game misconduct. Andrew Sturtz was tossed last week in the first game for contact to the head.

With Romanko gone, the Lions had five minutes with an extra skater. With some beautiful passing around the Gophers defense, it was Kris Myllari who passed the puck across the front the net for a wide open Nate Sucese, who put it in the back of the net as it bounced off Robson’s pad for the 2-1 Penn State lead less than three minutes into the second.

Minnesota didn’t go down quietly as Hults turned the puck over in his own area and the Gophers were all over it. Rem Pitlick from behind the net was able to find a crashing Scott Reedy who tied the game at 2 with his one-timer beating Peyton Jones.

With the game looking like it was going to be tied heading to the third, the Nittany Lions put their foot on the gas in the final 90 seconds.

Moscow native Denis Smirnov had a moment of magic as he skated through the Minnesota defense and then beat Robson’s short side at what seemed to be a near-impossible angle to score restoring the Lion lead.

Fifty-six seconds later, Andrew Sturtz one-upped the Russian teammate with a solo goal of his own. Sturtz fooled Golden Gopher defenseman Ryan Zuhlsdorf and his shot went top shelf literally sending the net backsides giving the Lions a 4-2 lead and sending the crowd into a frenzy heading into the final period. Gadowsky referred to those two goals as ‘difference of the game’ and Sturtz agreed.

“It was a huge weight off my shoulder,” said Sturtz. “We’re finally starting to learn to play with two-goal leads. Going into that third period with a little extra cushion it was good. We knew we could keep pressing for another one, but at the end of the day we got the win.”

With neither team being able to score early in the third, the physicality of the game between the two teams was a talking point as both teams’ captains got involved with each other. Penn State captain James Robinson was handed a game misconduct and contact to the head, as well an ejection. Minnesota captain Tyler Sheehy was given an embellishment penalty, giving the crowd some 4-on-4 hockey for two minutes.

The ejection proved costly for Penn State as it was Mittelstadt getting on the scoresheet once again while having a man advantage. Mittelstadt, who was the No. 8 pick in the 2017 NHL entry draft, got his second power play goal as his shot went off the post and beat Jones’ shoulder at a tight angle to cut the lead to 4-3 with five minutes left.

With the Golden Gophers desperately chasing the crucial tying goal, the Nittany Lions held their ground as they killed off a penalty and put the game away with Evan Barratt scoring an open-net goal, winning the game 5-3.

Penn State will seek to sweep Minnesota back-to-back weekend and advance to the Big Ten semifinals tonight at 7 p.m., but the team’s mentality has not wavered despite being up 1-0.

“The only win that matters is the last one, that’s how we’re looking at it,” Gadowsky said.