UNIVERSITY PARK - If there is such a thing as a moral victory in sports, the Penn State men's hockey team earned it Sunday against Minnesota, the top-ranked team in the nation.
The Nittany Lions rallied from a 2-0 deficit to tie it in the third period in front of a raucous Pegula Arena crowd, only to see it slip away when Ben Marshall scored with 4:01 left in the game, giving the Golden Gophers the 3-2 victory Sunday night in the Lions' Big Ten home opener.
With the loss, the Nittany Lions fell to 4-11-1 overall and 0-3 in the Big Ten. Minnesota improved to 14-2-3 on the season and 4-0-1 in the conference. Penn State ends the home series with Minnesota tonight at 7 p.m.
"I think we are always optimistic. We have a good group of hard-working guys," Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky said. "We had a preview of what this game would be like when we played Boston College and that helped. We are always disappointed when we lose. If you look at where we were from the start of the season, we are playing much better. I think we can be proud of some of the things we've done, but we don't feel good after losing."
Both teams gave the crowd their money's worth with solid forechecking, aggressive defense and excellent goaltending.
Minnesota opened the scoring with just 2:37 gone in the first. Defenseman Brady Skjei scored his third of the season, ripping a slap shot from the left face-off circle for the goal. A.J. Michaelson and Connor Reilly had the assists.
The Nittany Lions reacted to the score by tightening up its defense, limiting the Golden Gophers to just three shots in the final seven minutes of the period.
Penn State had two solid chances on a late period power play, but goalie Adam Wilcox (27 saves) stoned Kenny Brooks in front of the net and Curtis Loik's rebound from the slot.
"We expected a tough game from Penn State, especially on their home ice," Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. "We came out aggressive. We skated well early, but we got sloppy midway through the second period. It was a well-played game tonight and that's what you expect from Big Ten hockey."
Netminder Eamon McAdam (42 saves) kept the Nittany Lions in the game in the second period. Minnesota peppered the net with 14 shots, but the Penn State freshman was strong until Mike Reilly connected with a power-play tally at the 11:34 mark. The goal was the eighth of the season for the Gopher defenseman with Travis Boyd assisting.
"I thought Eamon was outstanding tonight. He kept us in the game and gave us a chance to win," Gadowsky said. "I know he's hungry to get a win. From his work in practice and how he's been playing, he earned the right to start tonight.
"He gave up a goal early and then bounced back and made some huge saves for us. There was times where our defense played well, but he came up with some big saves to bail us out."
Penn State made it 2-1 late in the second when David Goodwin controlled the puck along the boards and fed a nifty pass to Taylor Holstrom in front of the net. Holstrom fired it under the left skate of Wilcox for his second goal of the season. Goodwin and David Thompson assisted.
"We felt we had life after the goal. We felt good about what we were doing," Gadowsky said. "We have to be a little more aggressive all over the ice. We gave up a power-play goal and that's something you can't afford to do against a team like Minnesota. We have to stay out of the penalty box."
The Nittany Lions knotted it up at 2-2 when David Glen scored his second of the season, redirecting a Nate Jenson slapper into the back of the net at 3:45. Jensen and Yanis assisted.
However, the heartbreak came after Marshall's game winner, assisted by Taylor Cammara.
"He (Cammara) came in on a 2-on-1, the save, it bounced out of the zone and then the guy (Marshall) walked the blue line and got off a good shot. It hit the post. I didn't see it. It's just a good goal," McAdam said. "It's tough to give up a goal any time but when you're in a 2-2 tie with the top team in the nation and let one go in it's tough. It's a mental toughness thing. We just have to bounce back and go after them tomorrow."
Minnesota out-shot Penn State 45-27. The Golden Gophers were 1-for-6 on the power play, while Penn State finished 0-for-3.