Penn State hockey is almost back. Guy Gadowsky and his No. 10 Nittany Lions get their season underway this weekend with two non-conference road games against Clarkson and St. Lawrence.
Repeating as Big Ten champions will be a tough challenge for Penn State, as the Big Ten is even stronger than it was last season. Familiar conference rivals like Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Minnesota are all ranked in the first USCHO poll of the season, and Big Ten newcomer Notre Dame came in two spots ahead of the Nittany Lions as the No. 8 team in the country.
Take a look ahead at some of Penn State’s most crucial series throughout the 2017-18 season.
No. 3 Minnesota, October 13-14 (away); February 23-24 (home)
Penn State’s conference opener falls in week two, and it is a doozy. The team will travel to Mariucci for a clash with the third-best team in all of college hockey, and a team that swept the Nittany Lions in the 2016-17 regular season.
Minnesota won both of its home games against Penn State handily last season, sweeping the Nittany Lions by a combined score of 10-3. Penn State got some redemption in the Big Ten tournament, knocking the Gophers out after an overtime goal by defenseman Erik Autio.
Travelling to Mariucci and beating the Gophers is no easy task, as the Gophers are stacked with top-end talent. The leader of this pack is forward Casey Mittelstadt, a top-ten draft pick of the Buffalo Sabres at the 2017 NHL Entry Draft.
Mittelstadt is a dynamic center who makes up for his lack of strength and size with pure speed, skill, and competitiveness. He is just one of many forwards on the Gophers’ roster who were picked up in the NHL Draft, including freshman Scott Reedy, who was a teammate of Evan Barratt’s on the US National Development Team.
On the back end, the team returns several experienced defenseman and their starting goalie, Eric Schierhorn. The best of this group is Ryan Lindgren, a second-round draft pick of the Boston Bruins in 2016.
Though the team didn’t win the Big Ten title last year, Minnesota may be the most talented team in the conference, and will never be an easy opponent for Penn State. The late February series at Pegula could prove to be crucial to each of these teams’ conference hopes.
No. 8 Notre Dame, November 10-11 (away); February 2-3 (home)
The Big Ten’s newest member also just happens to be one of the strongest teams in all of college hockey. This team made a deep run in the NCAA Tournament last year, making it all the way to the Frozen Four before being defeated by Denver, who ended up winning the national title.
During that Frozen Four run, the Fighting Irish defeated none other than Minnesota, which was the No. 4 team in the nation heading into the tournament. Notre Dame has quickly established itself as a power, and joining a conference stocked with so much quality should bolster that cause.
Penn State actually got a glimpse of the Fighting Irish last season as they competed as an independent. The Nittany Lions sent shockwaves throughout college hockey by warding off the Irish; they won game two of the series 3-2 in overtime after tying the first game 3-3.
The victory changed Penn State’s season, as the Lions went on to win 14 of their next 15 games. This run included a 10-game winning streak and led to the team’s first-ever No. 1 ranking.
This season, Penn State and Notre Dame will clash four times in the regular season, the first two at the Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend. The Fighting Irish will travel to Pegula Ice Arena on Feb. 2 and 3 for their first-ever visit to Hockey Valley.
Though Notre Dame may have less NHL Draft-caliber talent than a team like Minnesota, it is still one of the strongest programs in all of college hockey. Like Penn State, the Fighting Irish will try to build on a stellar 2016-17 season, so it will be interesting to see the two teams face off — especially with former star Notre Dame goalie Cal Petersen off to the NHL with the Buffalo Sabres.
No. 19 Ohio State, December 1-2 (away); January 12-13 (home)
Ohio State is one of Penn State’s most intriguing opponents this season. Ohio State was one of two Big Ten teams to win its season series against Penn State; the other was Minnesota, a perennial college hockey power.
The Buckeyes snapped Penn State’s 10-game winning streak when they split their first series of the year, and then won twice against the Nittany Lions — fresh off earning a No. 1 ranking — at Pegula.
An NCAA tournament team in 2016-17, the Buckeyes faced off against Minnesota-Duluth, the No. 2 team in the nation, and went to overtime before eventually losing.
Don’t sleep on the Buckeyes this season; they are extremely underrated, and shouldn’t be taken lightly. This matchup will definitely test Penn State and be a good indicator the season’s progress.