Penn State hockey is officially back this weekend after the team’s annual month-long winter break.
The Nittany Lions return to action this weekend with a crucial Big Ten series at Pegula Ice Arena. No. 15 Wisconsin will face off against No. 14 Penn State for the first time this season. We all know what happened during the last meeting between these two teams. Will history repeat itself this weekend in Hockey Valley?
Wisconsin (10-9-2, 4-5-1 Big Ten) is coming off of a month-long layoff of its own entering this weekend’s series. The team last skated against No. 2 Notre Dame on December 8 and 9, getting swept at home by the seemingly unstoppable Fighting Irish. However, the Badgers had Notre Dame on the ropes in game one of this series – they entered the third period up by two goals, but blew the lead and lost in regulation.
Outside of this being the first Big Ten championship game rematch of the 2017-18 season, the biggest storyline entering this game is the absence of sophomore star Trent Frederic from the Badgers’ lineup. Frederic, a first-round pick of the Boston Bruins in 2016, is currently representing the United States in the World Junior Championships in Buffalo. The US will face off against Sweden in the semifinals on Thursday night, keeping the St. Louis native in Buffalo throughout this weekend.
The loss of Frederic certainly hurts the Badgers’ group of forwards, as he is one of three alternate captains on the team and is second in scoring with 16 points (8 goals, 8 assists) in 21 games played. The team leader in scoring, senior Ryan Wagner, has scored eight goals and added 11 assists so far this year.
While no one on the roster has scored more than 20 points this season, eight forwards have posted more than ten, which shows how balanced Wisconsin’s attack is. In addition to those forwards, two defensemen — freshman Wyatt Kalynuk and alternate captain Jake Linehart — have also broken the ten-point plateau through 21 games. Kalynuk, a seventh-round pick of the Flyers in 2017, is tied for third on the team with 15 points.
As far as the defense is concerned, the Badgers have allowed 2.9 goals per game this season, which ranks fourth in the Big Ten behind Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Minnesota. Kalynuk and Linehart have been deployed on the team’s top defensive pairing; on most occasions, the duo has played in front of goaltender Kyle Hayton. In 16 starts, the senior has posted a 7-6-2 record, a 2.88 goals-against average, and a .892 save percentage.
Wisconsin’s offense has posted 3.33 goals per game this season — a number that ranks No. 15 in the country — and a big part of this comes on special teams.
The Badgers’ power play has scored 19 of the team’s 70 goals this season. The unit’s 23.8 percent conversion rate ranks eleventh in the country and Ryan Wagner leads the team with five of these 19 power play goals. The Nittany Lions will have to keep their penalty kill unit — which is No. 14 in the country with an 84.85 percent success rate — off the ice if they want to keep Wisconsin’s balanced attack at bay throughout the weekend.
While its power play is among the best in the country, Wisconsin’s penalty kill leaves something to be desired. The PK’s success rate of 82.5 percent ranks in the middle of the pack nationally; Penn State’s power play could find some success against the Badgers if they fail to stay out of the penalty box.
By the end of the last meeting between these two hockey programs, Guy Gadowsky’s list of accomplishments as a head coach included something that isn’t on Jim Harbaugh’s: a Big Ten Championship.
The replay of Liam Folkes’ golden goal at the Joe will certainly be shown on the Pegula Ice Arena scoreboard throughout the evening, the banner will overlook the action on the ice, and Wisconsin will be out for revenge this weekend.
The Badgers are a balanced, solid team, but Penn State hasn’t suffered a regulation loss in eight games. The Nittany Lions’ recent form may be broken up by the long holiday layoff, so I’ll predict a split featuring a 5-2 Penn State win and a 4-3 Wisconsin victory.