Less than 24 hours after the Gophers grabbed a hold of the top spot in the sort-of-awful Big Ten hockey conference, they left points and placement on the table in a very winnable game against the Penn State Nittany Lions. In what's become typical fashion, they got behind early, allowing two Penn goals early on, and sinking in the first period.
Over the course of the early going, the Gophers struggled to get their offense moving and allowed the Nittany Lions to dictate play. Their defense struggled to control the puck, though they did well to keep play out of Eric Schierhorn's face. In the end, the first two goals came more as a product of the Gophers' complacency and willingness to play defensively early on. It should be obvious, but I'll put it plainly here: the Gophers' strength is not on defense.
The Gophers, in recent memory, have played their best hockey on the backs of strong offensive plays and brute force rushes up the wing. Defensive hockey, the same style that held the Nittany Lions under 10 shots for who knows how long tonight, also gave them the control of the offensive tempo.
As a result, the Gophers played from behind for a majority of the rest of the game. In their defense, they played incredible from behind tonight, pushing the offensive play and laying on the pressure more and more as the game went on. Rather than giving in and playing a shellish defensive game designed to limit the offensive chances of their opponents, they instead opted to play with the puck in the offensive zone.
willingness to insistence on playing offense instead of defense should be a refreshing thing to fans of Minnesota hockey. The Gophers defense stepped in often, taking shots from the point before Nittany Lions' goalie Eamon McAdams (great name) could adjust and square to the shot. This kept PSU's defense pinned down low, focusing on containing rebounds rather than breaking out and springing forwards deep.
For so long in the game, after the first period, this strategy played to the Gophers' favor. They scored a pair of goals before PSU could respond, and tied things up at 3 on a fantastic goal by Captain Justin Kloos. In and of itself, the Gophers' game tonight was what Hockey Day Minnesota has always been. It's a chance for promising young hockey players to get out there and do their thing.
Among those players who best exemplified that tradition, that attitude, that persistence was Freshman Tyler Sheehy. The Burnsville, Minnesota native played strong hockey in both Friday and Saturday nights' games, contributing on both offense and defense and playing a bigger role than anyone had any right to expect. Against the Nittany Lions, he drove the puck deep to establish control while reinforcements arrived in tow, leading to a number of penalties on PSU's part.
While the end result, a game filled with penalties and one of the first challenges in NCAA hockey I've ever seen (the Gophers were, in fact, offsides) and a loss for the maroon and gold, was much less than any fan of Minnesota hockey would have liked, it was still every bit as important as it's always been. At its core, Hockey Day Minnesota is a celebration that requires no validation. Hockey Day Minnesota 2016 doesn't need to be a day filled with wins for the good guys or fantastic plays or champions crowned. At the end of it all, Hockey Day Minnesota, and the part the Gophers played in it tonight, is fundamentally about the engagement between the citizens of Minnesota, the greatest game on ice, and the State of Hockey.