After its longest game in program history resulting in a 4-3 double OT win over Minnesota, No. 15 Penn State hockey is headed to its first-ever Big Ten Championship game. Although the Nittany Lions have essentially secured an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, a win tonight against Wisconsin would guarantee it.
Recapping The Season
Wisconsin is a solid hockey team, but Penn State won three of four regular season meetings. The first series was a road sweep for the Nittany Lions with 6-3 and 5-2 decisions that gave them some essential momentum after a five-game winless streak. These wins, like last night’s, showcased Penn State’s ability to come through when there’s a lot on the line. It started off strong in both games knocking first. Denis Smirnov, whose game performance is generally indicative of Penn State’s as a whole, tallied five points on the series after a few games featuring quiet showings.
Wisconsin came to Pegula for the last series of the regular season and split two high-scoring matches with Penn State. The Nittany Lions fell 7-4 in the first game. The Badgers got on the board first and the Nittany Lions never had a lead. It was night and day for Penn State the following game when it shut out Wisconsin 6-0 on Senior Night. David Goodwin in particular came up huge (like he did in the teams’ first meeting of the season) with four points. Peyton Jones obviously had a tremendous game between the pipes for the shutout as well after a shaky showing the night before.
What To Watch
Sophomore captain Luke Kunin is clutch for the Badgers. He put them up 1-0 in their semifinal win against Ohio State, scored three points in Penn State and Wisconsin’s first series, and averages a nice 69 points through 68 games played in two seasons. He’s ranked ninth in the nation in goals this season with 22, and I could see him making an impact tonight. Nine of those were on the power play so Penn State will want to watch it with the penalties. Freshman goaltender Jack Berry is historically weak against Penn State’s high-scoring offense, but his 23 saves shut down the Buckeyes’ third-ranked offense yesterday. He could potentially give the Nittany Lions some trouble, but Wisconsin’s defense in general has been struggling all season with 3.31 goals allowed per game on average.
If Penn State comes out on a mission Erik Autio style again, its first-ever trip to the Big Ten Championship will result in a win. The Badgers have more on the line, though — at this point, a conference win is their only ticket to the NCAA Tournament. Jones and Penn State’s defense might need to play like they don’t already have an at-large bid basically on lock to shut down the Badgers’ offense. I somehow got last night’s prediction exactly correct, so I’ll be bold again: Penn State wins this 5-2.