No. 19 Penn State men’s hockey takes on No. 6 Notre Dame this weekend in a series that is undoubtedly the team’s biggest of the season thus far.
If Penn State can pick up at least one big victory, this series could be the spark to change the team’s fortunes. So far, the Nittany Lions are 5-5 through their first ten games, splitting each of their first five series. This will be the first time Penn State takes on Notre Dame since the Fighting Irish joined the Big Ten.
One thing immediately stands out about Notre Dame’s hockey program: the Fighting Irish are really, really good.
Last season, Notre Dame made a run all the way to the Frozen Four while playing in Hockey East, a conference that includes perennial college hockey powerhouses like Boston University and Northwestern.
After finishing the regular season with a 21-11-5 record, Notre Dame beat Minnesota and UMass-Lowell, the two top seeds in the Northeast region, before losing to eventual national champion Denver in the Frozen Four.
Despite Notre Dame’s success last season, two of the Fighting Irish’s key men went pro over the summer. Leading scorer Anders Bjork scored 21 goals and added 31 assists in just 39 games played last year, but he skipped his final collegiate season to sign with the Boston Bruins.
Additionally, star goalie and team captain Cal Petersen also elected to forgo his final season of eligiblity in favor of signing a pro contract. The Buffalo Sabres draft pick elected to spurn Terry Pegula’s team in favor of the Los Angeles Kings. He finished last season with a 23-12-5 record and an impressive .926 save percentage.
Despite these subtractions, Notre Dame is still one of the deadliest teams in all of college hockey. The team is 6-3-1 in its first ten games as a Big Ten team, including a comfortable sweep of No. 16 Ohio State last weekend.
Up front, senior center Jake Evans has led the charge so far, recording four goals and 14 assists in the early stages of the season. He played alongside Cam Morrison and Colin Thiesen last weekend in Columbus; they have combined for 15 points through the team’s first ten games.
Lots of the Fighting Irish’s offense has come from the back line. Defensemen Jordan Gross and Bobby Nardella are each averaging at least a point per game through ten games; Gross has twelve points so far this year, while Nardella is not far behind with ten.
While the team’s top pairing of Justin Wade and Dennis Gilbert has not produced offensively yet, the duo makes up a strong shutdown pair.
In goal, Cale Morris has seen the majority of action this season and he has excelled in replacing Cal Petersen. His 2.22 goals-against average and .925 save percentage are both among the best in the Big Ten.
Notre Dame is also not afraid to trust its backup goaltender either; Dylan St. Cyr has seen action in four games so far this year, posting a .914 save percentage in those games.
Despite losing Bjork and Petersen to the pros, this Notre Dame squad is still extremely strong. The forward group is deadly even without Bjork’s presence; it will be difficult for Guy Gadowsky’s squad to contain players like Jake Evans and Cam Morrison.
The offense that Bobby Nardella and Jordan Gross have produced from the back end will also be difficult to stop. However, the Fighting Irish have had a problem very familiar to Penn State: defensive struggles.
Notre Dame has given up 2.90 goals per game so far this year, including six in a surprising home loss to Nebraska-Omaha. That being said, the team has been able to shut down teams like Ohio State, so its defensive problems aren’t necessarily as severe as Penn State’s may be.
The last meeting between Penn State and Notre Dame arguably changed the trajectory of Penn State’s hockey program. Andrew Sturtz’s goal in overtime ended a massive upset over a Notre Dame team that was ranked No. 3 in the country after a tie the night before.
After that series, Guy Gadowsky’s Nittany Lions went on to win 13 of their next 14 games en route to a program-first No. 1 ranking.
Both of these teams’ defensive woes early on in the season could cause these games to be track meets, a stark contrast from last season’s tight series at the Compton Family Ice Arena.
I think Penn State can escape South Bend with at least one victory. The team has struggled to keep the puck out of its net early on this season, so I think a split is a fair prediction. One thing is certain though: These two games will be extremely fun to watch.
Puck drop on Friday night is at 7:35 and Saturday’s game time has been moved up to 5:30 p.m. Game two of this weekend’s series will still be televised on NBC Sports Network.