Know Your Enemy: No. 11 Penn State Hockey vs. No. 16 Wisconsin
In my first series preview of the season, I said the hockey season is notorious for its length. Staring down No. 11 Penn State’s last home series, I’d like to take that back. It seems as though the Nittany Lions went from unranked to No. 1 to right on the tournament bubble in just a few weeks, but here we are five months later.
Penn State takes on Wisconsin at Pegula this weekend featuring Senior Night and a chance to improve its NCAA Tournament chances.
Coach Guy Gadowsky said he’s not focusing on a magic number of wins ahead of tournament selection, which is quite Gadowsky of him. “No. Absolutely not. No,” he said at Monday’s media availability. “All there is is Friday night. That’s all we care about.”
He also said he’s changing the way he does Senior Night to give the team time to decompress. Last year the seniors and their families were recognized right before the game, and some of them were “skating with tears in their eyes during the first few shifts” (Gadowsky wouldn’t name names).
Zeroing In On Wisconsin
Wisconsin’s No. 13 in the PairWise right now — four spots below Penn State. The Badgers (18-11-1) have defeated a few noteworthy opponents so far this season — Boston College, Minnesota (twice), and Ohio State (twice) stick out. Still, they’ve lost to weak teams like Northern Michigan (twice), Merrimack, and Michigan. Penn State swept them already, but I’ll get into that later.
Through 29 games, sophomore forward Luke Kunin has scored 35 points (20 goals, 15 assists). Eight of those goals came off the power play, so Penn State really doesn’t want to get into any penalty trouble this weekend. Speaking of penalties, Wisconsin’s pk unit is fifth in the nation, with 113-of-130 penalties killed. Even with a killer pk unit, the Badgers struggle on defense. They have a 3.23 goals against average and they’ve let certain teams run up the score severely — Boston College beat them 8-5, Omaha 7-4, Penn State 6-3, and three other teams scored 5 against them. On the offensive front, Wisconsin does boast a 3.67 goals per game average, so puck control and sharp defense will be key to a Penn State sweep.
Penn State completed a road sweep of Wisconsin February 10-11, snapping a five-game winless streak in the process. Wisconsin came into the series in the exact opposite situation, riding on a five-game win streak.
The first game was a decisive 6-3 win in which captain David Goodwin broke Penn State’s all-time games played record and tallied three points (two goals, one assist). The Nittany Lions let a two-goal lead slip away to a 2-2 tie (a neutral zone turnover and power play allowed for Wisconsin’s goals) and it started looking like their slump wasn’t over. Kunin scored on the power play for the equalizer — if you give him a power play opportunity, chances are he capitalizes. Instead of giving up, though, Denis Smirnov got back to his winning ways after a few games with no points to steal back the lead. A Trevor Hamilton shorthanded goal was a key moment in this game because it was something of a revival for Penn State’s penalty kill. Not to be dramatic, but snagging this win in general was crucial — a win on the road over a ranked opponent made it clear the Nittany Lions weren’t fading into mediocrity for the duration of the season.
The second game was a 5-2 Penn State win, led by two goals apiece from Smirnov and Nate Sucese. Kunin scored on the power play once again, driving home the importance of staying off the penalty kill when playing Wisconsin. Since the Nittany Lions snapped the Badgers’ five-game win sweep three weeks ago, the Badgers swept Michigan and split with Minnesota on the road.
Penn State got back to the type of high-scoring play that makes big wins against tough opponents look easy in its last series with Wisconsin. The Nittany Lions came into that series with everything to prove, though, and the Badgers were likely getting comfortable in their win streak. Now, Penn State is coming off a sweep of Michigan State and Wisconsin is coming off a loss to Minnesota so the momentum is a little different in terms of urgency. This isn’t going to be as easy as it looked the first time, especially considering Wisconsin’s ability to beat Minnesota (aka Penn State’s Achilles heel). Still, it’s senior weekend and the Nittany Lions swept the Badgers on the road — I don’t see them getting swept in their last home game of the regular season. If Penn State stays out of the penalty box, a season sweep isn’t unreasonable. I don’t know if that will happen, so I say Penn State and Wisconsin split the series. But you can’t make me guess the scores.