The Lions played a very solid 60 minutes against one of the best teams in the country. After trailing by a pair of goals midway through, the Lions had some scoring chances in the final period that could have tied the game.
Two late goals by the Gophers in the first period set the tone for the game. One came with 1 second remaining on a power-play and the other came with 1 second left in the opening period. Penn State fought back on the strength of Kevin Wall’s second goal of the season, cutting the lead to 3-2 with ten minutes to play.
It’s always hard to beat Minnesota at home on their Olympic-sized sheet of ice. The Gophers lost just 1 game at home in 2014 and has had two seasons since then with just 3 total losses at home all season. They may not lose many this year, either.
The Lions will travel to Wisconsin for a rare Monday and Tuesday night series. Both games will be televised by the Big Ten Network.
How It Happened
Freshman goalie Liam Souliere made the first start of his career for Guy Gadowsky. The 21-year old is not new to hockey by any stretch of the imagination, it just took him a few years to make it to an NCAA roster.
The teams came out skating hard and after a long stretch where Penn State held the puck in the Gophers’ zone, the first penalty of the game was called. The Lions were called for interference. Paul DeNaples made a great block to help his goaltender but with 1 second left on the penalty, Scott Reedy scored.
Through 8 minutes Penn State trailed in shots on goal 4 to 2 but it was not indicative of the action on the ice. The Lions threw the puck toward the goal as they have traditionally in past years, it just didn’t make it all the way to goalie Jack LaFontaine. The Gophers also led in blocks during the early-going, 4 to 2.
It continued to be a brisk pace and other than the scoreboard the Lions had the advantage, leading 10-5 in shots on goal and controlling the puck in their offensive zone with 3 minutes to play before the first intermission.
Finally the Lions got on the board when Christian Sarlo and his line mates created a quick 3 on 1. Connor MacEachern and Jared Wescott got the puck over to Sarlo who finished for his first collegiate goal.
Sammy Walker added a very late goal for Minnesota to wipe out the work that the Lions had done to tie the game, putting it in the net with 1 second on the clock.
Just a minute into the second period, the Lions went on a power play following an interference call. Penn State held the puck in Minnesota’s zone for over a minute to begin the advantage but ultimately were not able to score. Five minutes into the second period the Lions led in shots on goal 19-7 though trailing 2-1 on the scoreboard.
Midway through the period the score remained the same but the Lions continued to dominate the action. Tyler Gratton got called for a penalty in his own offensive zone and Guy Gadowsky’s team had to go on the penalty kill for the second time. Minnesota scored late in the power-play again, this time with ten seconds remaining.
Liam Souliere played a great game in net to that point but he was left hung out to dry several times. Moments later he made a save to keep the lead at 3-1. Kevin Wall had a partial breakaway on the next possession and nearly cut the lead in half but was turned away by LaFontaine.
With 1:18 on the clock before the second intermission Souliere made a nice save on a 2 on 1 break to keep the Lions within a pair of goals.
Both sides had scoring chances early in the final period but the goaltenders held steady. Kevin Wall slid a backhand past Jack LaFontaine to get the Lions within one goal with 15:19 left on the clock. Wall took the puck the length of the ice to energize his team with a comeback effort.
Since there were not any fans in the stadium it is easy to hear Wall celebrate after the goal as his team mates joined him if you push the volume button on the video.
Minnesota put together a very competitive couple of minutes following the goal, trying to get the cushion back, but Souliere and the team’s defense held steady. With 7:26 to go, trailing by one, the Lions held a 34-24 shot on goal advantage. Penn State went on a power-play shortly after but Tyler Gratton took another penalty in his own offensive zone, going to the box with an interference call. The teams skated 4 on 4 with 6 minutes to play.
With 4 minutes to play the teams were about to go back to even strength but Sampo Ranta went to the penalty box with a high hit on Connor McMenamin. It was the Lions’ best chance to tie the game. Tyler Gratton nearly scored on a redirect in front of the net but Jack LaFontaine pushed it away with his blocker.
Souliere went to the bench for an extra skater with 1:13 left to play. Minnesota almost scored an empty-net goal but the Lions were able to get it back into their offensive zone for one more chance. It didn’t pan out but it was a hard-fought battle to the final whistle.
- Kevin Wall was drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes and he is beginning to show his talent. After scoring the only goal on Thursday night for the Lions, Wall again got on the board with a great individual play. Last season Sam Sternschein broke out with a very productive year and Wall is a similar player. Wall, at 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, has good size and all kinds of skill with his hands.
- Liam Souliere played very well in his debut. Oskar Autio has the starting spot locked down at this point but his backup will see plenty of action with the weird schedule this season. With the Lions playing 4 games in 6 days, all on the road, it is important to have a reliable second goalie. Souliere looked more composed than Autio was last year during his freshman season, and that makes sense since he is a year older than Autio though a year behind at Penn State. I would grade Souliere as being the best backup goalie the team has had for at least a few years. His stick work was solid and he could have easily let in several goals against superstars like Sampo Ranta and Sammy Walker, instead he kept the team in the game until he was pulled for the extra skater.
- Due to having to replace half of its roster and not having much preparation for the season, it is hard to know how good the Lions are by watching this series. One indication is that they hung tough with one of the best teams in the country on their home ice. While Penn State didn’t always have a fluid look out there on Thursday night, the cohesion was much better on Friday.
- One thing that is noticeable is that the team no longer has players that put them at a disadvantage on defense. Souliere was left to defend point-blank shots a few times this weekend but it was due to Minnesota making great plays, creating turnovers or opportunities. In past years the Lions got their offense by taking risks that could leave the defense and goalie with impossible odds on the other end. There were players that would sell out to get an offensive chance as that was part of the game plan. Players such as Denis Smirnov were weapons only on one side of the ice. This offense features Aarne Talvitie, Kevin Wall, Sam Sternschein and Alex Limoges. These players are large and play hard on both sides of the ice. As a result teams will have a harder time scoring against the Lions this year once they learn how to play together as a unit, which may take a few games.
- If a team can maintain a record somewhere near .500 in the Big Ten it will have a chance to get an NCAA Tournament at-large bid at the end of the year. Hockey isn’t like other sports, it has a system of ranking the teams that allows for imperfect but strong teams to enter the field of 16. Once a team is in the tournament anything can happen. If the Lions can return to the Pegula Ice Arena with a 1-3 record, getting a split with Wisconsin, it will be right on schedule.