After a series victory over then-No. 11 Ohio State propelled Penn State men’s hockey back into the national rankings, the No. 18 Nittany Lions will take on Robert Morris this weekend in their final series before the month-long winter break.
The first game of the series will be played at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh at 7 p.m. Friday. The teams then travel to Hockey Valley for game two of the series at 7 p.m. Saturday.
For the second time this season, Penn State will have the opportunity to play a game in an NHL facility. The Nittany Lions played at Gila River Arena, home of the Arizona Coyotes, three weeks ago during their sweep of Arizona State. This weekend, they get a chance to play at PPG Paints Arena, home of the defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
“It’s awesome,” senior defenseman Trevor Hamilton said of playing in NHL facilities. “I grew up playing in the Detroit Red Wings’ old rink, and playing there was just awesome. Pittsburgh has hosted the Stanley Cup [Final] in each of the past two years, so it will be a very special experience.”
As for the Nittany Lions’ opponent, Robert Morris enters this weekend’s series with a 5-9-1 record. The past three series have seen the Colonials sandwich a sweep of AIC between two-loss weekends against RIT and Bentley. All but two of Robert Morris’ games have been in conference play; those two non-conference games were losses to Ohio State on October 27and 28.
The root of the Colonials’ struggles appears to be their defense. Robert Morris has allowed an average of 3.3 goals per game, which ranks 45th out of 60 teams in Division I hockey. Goaltender Francis Marrotte has started 12 of 15 games so far this year, posting a respectable .911 save percentage and a 2.76 goals-against average.
On the blue line, defensemen Alex Bontje and Sean Giles platooned as the Colonials’ top pairing last weekend against Bentley. Most of the offensive production from the back end has come from junior Eric Israel, who leads all defensemen with a goal and five assists so far this season.
Up front, the team’s top six forwards have all posted strong seasons, but the lack of depth production from the bottom two forward lines has hurt the team. Michael Louria leads the team in scoring with 16 points and Luke Lynch’s nine goals is the most on the team, but no healthy forward outside of the top two lines has scored more than five points so far this season.
Sophomore forward Matthew Graham started the season well with seven points in nine games, but is currently injured and did not play last weekend. His return to the lineup would certainly help RMU’s middle-of-the-pack offense, which ranks No. 36 in the nation with 2.7 goals per game.
On paper, the Colonials don’t look spectacular, but they don’t look awful, either. Robert Morris is the definition of average in almost every category (except the defense, which, as mentioned above, has struggled).
That said, Penn State has to watch its discipline this weekend; the Colonials’ power play is operating at a solid 21 percent rate, good for 20th in the nation. Last weekend, the Nittany Lions took eight penalties against Ohio State and allowed one power play goal, so the team’s discipline can be worked on.
One stat that will have Guy Gadowsky’s team chomping at the bit is the Colonials’ away record. Robert Morris has posted a brutal 1-7-0 record away from home and is not playing at Colonials Arena this weekend. Sure, PPG Paints Arena is in the Colonials’ home town of Pittsburgh, but it’s clear they have had trouble adjusting to unfamiliar environments throughout the season.
Penn State last took on Robert Morris at PPG Paints Arena during the 2015-16 season, losing 6-4 on December 28. Historically, the Nittany Lions are 2-4-0 against the Colonials, including a 1-3-0 record in games played at PPG Paints Arena.
The Nittany Lions’ current momentum coming off of a big series victory over Ohio State is impossible to ignore; give me a Nittany Lion sweep with final scores of 5-2 on Friday in the ‘Burgh and 4-1 on Saturday at Pegula.