Close makes 36 saves in 3-0 shutout win against Penn State
Rhett Pitlick scored on Minnesota’s first two shots and goaltender Justen Close stopped all 36 attempts he faced, leading the No. 8/9-ranked men’s hockey team to a 3-0 shutout over Penn State in front of a sellout crowd Friday night at 3M Arena at Mariucci.
After the Golden Gophers (17-7-5 overall, 10-5-4 B1G) scored twice in the first four minutes of action, it was the defense and penalty kill that secured the victory against the Nittany Lions (12-12-3 overall, 4-10-3 B1G), a team receiving votes in the national polls. Minnesota erased a pair of 5-on-3 chances by PSU late in the second period that proved pivotal in the Big Ten Conference matchup.
Close shut down the NCAA’s 10th-ranked scoring offense all night long on the way to his third shutout of the season, aided by a 19-save effort in the second period, including 10 while on the penalty kill.
It didn’t take long for the Maroon and Gold to bring the capacity crowd to its feet as Pitlick opened the scoring just 43 seconds into the contest. The junior buried a pinpoint pass by Oliver Moore in front of the net after Jimmy Snuggerud started the play with speed in the neutral zone. The margin doubled three minutes later, and it was Pitlick again finding the back of the net for his second of the night. This time he showed off his quick hands and pounced on a rebound following Luke Mittelstadt’s shot from the blue line. The Gophers carried play for the rest of the frame and took their two-goal cushion into the locker room through 20 minutes.
Early in the second period, the teams were called for matching minors and skated 4-on-4 until the Nittany Lions gave the home side its first chance on the man advantage. The opportunity was erased but Minnesota went back to another power play in the middle of the second stanza and Pitlick nearly completed his hat trick with a shot from close range. PSU had its best look of the contest with seven minutes to play as it broke up the ice for a 3-on-1, only to see the shot hit the left post. The game took a physical turn as both sides delivered crunching hits and the Gophers were whistled for simultaneous penalties, including a five-minute major with 5:40 remaining in the period.
Minnesota killed off the two-minute penalty, igniting cheers from the student section behind Close, but were called for another infraction that gave the Nittany Lions another crack at a 5-on-3. After a sliding save across the crease from the reigning Big Ten Conference First Star of the Week, the entire crowd got to its feet in applause of the defensive effort as Close and the Gophers erased four full minutes while short two skaters. Carl Fish jumped out from the box and had a breakaway chance that needed to be turned aside and the Maroon and Gold held PSU off the board for the remainder of the period, maintaining the 2-0 edge.
As it did in the first period, Minnesota went on the attack early during the final frame and Connor Kurth put away a third-chance opportunity from the slot at the 1:16 mark. The sophomore backhanded a rebound past the netminder’s pad after Mike Koster initially put the puck on target and Aaron Huglen had a shot stopped in tight. Tempers picked up down the stretch before the Gophers held off the Nittany Lions the rest of the evening, winning 3-0 for their fifth-straight home victory.