'We want payback': Gophers, Penn State meet this weekend in clash of Big Ten leaders

Blake McLaughlin was named the Big Ten's Second Star of the Week after getting 3 points in Minnesota's series at Notre Dame last weekend. ((credit: University of Minnesota))

The University of Minnesota men’s hockey team has gone from an afterthought to fighting for a Big Ten championship since turning the calendar to 2020.

The Gophers (14-11-5) won in a shoot-out Friday and 2-1 in regulation Saturday at Notre Dame to pick up five out of a possible six points on the weekend. It put Minnesota in a tie for the Big Ten lead with Penn State, with two regular season series remaining. It just so happens the Gophers head east this weekend to take on the Nittany Lions as the top two teams will battle for Big Ten supremacy, at least for one weekend.

“Huge, it’s big time. I’m not a big fan of Penn State at all. They’ve definitely got our number, my number. We’re the top two teams in the Big Ten right now, and this weekend is ginormous for us or them,” senior defenseman Ryan Zuhlsdorf said. “We’re really hungry to take over No. 1, it’ll be a good test for us.”

The Gophers will go into Penn State this weekend with an extra chip on their shoulder, looking to avenge getting swept by the Nittanly Lions, 8-2 and 6-3, back in November at 3M at Mariucci Arena. That included a night where, with the game won in the final minute of regulation, Penn State had the man advantage and put its top power-play unit on the ice.

It was three months ago, but Minnesota players haven’t forgotten that sequence.

“They kind of kicked us around a little bit at the start of the year. We kind of want payback for that. There’s no need to do that. We want payback,” sophomore Blake McLaughlin said.

The Gophers enter the weekend arguably the hottest team in college hockey, having won six of their past eight games. They've earned points in seven of those eight games. Not only are they poised to contend for a Big Ten regular season title, they’ve gotten themselves in the NCAA Tournament conversation.

The latest PairWise rankings have the Gophers in a three-way tie for 15th, with 10 teams receiving at-large bids after conference tournaments conclude. Bob Motzko’s greatest concern is making sure Minnesota’s postseason in the Big Ten Tournament goes through 3M at Mariucci Arena.

“I just want home ice right now. We’re in a battle for home ice. Anything after that, that’s all we’re fighting for right now is to stay there,” Motzko said. “If in another week we’ve got a shot at something else, we’re going to go for it. But right now it’s Penn State and get ready for them.”

After a three-point weekend at Notre Dame, which included goals both nights, McLaughlin was named the Big Ten Second Star of the Week. There’s something McLaughlin must like about Notre Dame, he’s got goals in all four games he’s played there.

His goal Saturday night on the power play was the game-winner for the Gophers over the Irish. He’s got eight goals and 13 assists this season, and those 21 points are good for fifth on the team in scoring.

“He’s just a dog on bone player. When he’s just hunting the puck, he doesn’t stop,” Motzko said. “He can play all night long and just never gets tired. When he’s going like that, it’s awfully fun to watch.”

After Penn State, the Gophers close out the regular season with a home series against Michigan. Motzko and the Gophers hope that’s not the last time they’re playing at 3M at Mariucci Arena. Their hope is it’s one step to being the top seed in the Big Ten Tournament.

For the three seniors on the roster, it’s their last chance to win a championship.

“We have a lot of young guys on the team right now and they might not recognize it right now, but as a senior it’s like every point matters. I want to win as many championships as I can. I want to do it for the program. I don’t have a lot of time left here and I want to make my mark,” Zuhlsdorf said.

The Gophers are 9-2-1 since coming back from a three-week break for the holidays. After those 21 days off, they're potentially peaking at the perfect time. The job now is to finish what they started after Christmas.

“I think it’s really exciting for us to see our team playing to a standard that we want to see them play and moving in the right direction,” Motzko said.