Know Your Enemy: No. 17 Penn State Hockey vs. No. 2 Notre Dame
No. 17 Penn State men’s hockey (13-11-4, 6-8-4 Big Ten) will take on No. 2 Notre Dame at Pegula Ice Arena this weekend in what is undoubtedly the Nittany Lions’ biggest series of the season.
Friday’s game will be played in front of one of college sports’ greatest spectacles: a Penn State White Out. This excitement is already enough to make this the biggest game of the season for Guy Gadowsky’s Nittany Lions; the fact that Penn State desperately needs to snap a five-game losing streak against the second-ranked team in the country just adds to the occasion. Can Penn State get off the schneid this weekend, or will Notre Dame continue to dominate in Big Ten play?
Notre Dame (20-5-1, 14-2-0 Big Ten) has been one of the stories of the 2017-18 college hockey season so far. The Fighting Irish’s 16-game unbeaten run propelled the team all the way to the top of the USCHO rankings and solidified Notre Dame as one of the truly elite programs in the nation. The team has cooled off in recent weeks, losing two of its last three games to Wisconsin and Minnesota.
The Fighting Irish bounced back from last weekend’s overtime loss to Minnesota with a complete effort, picking up a 4-1 win in game two of the series to earn a split at Mariucci. Although a split may not seem great when taken at face value, only one team has swept Minnesota at Mariucci since the Big Ten hockey conference formed in 2013. There’s no other way to describe Notre Dame than as a truly elite hockey program.
Notre Dame’s forward unit is solid, but it’s certainly not the main reason why the team has rolled over the rest of the Big Ten this season. Jake Evans leads the team with 31 points and 22 assists, while Cal Burke leads the charge in terms of goal scoring with 12 this season. The Fighting Irish have gotten plenty of production from all four of its forward lines; nine skaters have posted more than 10 points this season to help the team score three goals per game. The offense has done this all without Anders Bjork, who left the team after last season and has seen plenty of NHL time with the Boston Bruins this year.
The Fighting Irish’s biggest strength is on the opposite end of the ice. Goaltender Cale Morris has emerged as one of college hockey’s best throughout the season, leading Notre Dame with an unprecedented 19-3-0 record, .952 save percentage, and 1.61 goals-against average. All of these numbers rank at the top of the Big Ten’s goaltending charts, so Penn State’s dynamic offense has a daunting challenge in front of it.
On the blue line, Jordan Gross has emerged as a star in college hockey, leading the defensive group with 20 points while skating in all of the Irish’s 26 games this season. His 20 points ranks second among defensemen in the Big Ten conference behind Penn State’s Trevor Hamilton, who has 22 points to his name.
There’s no way to sugar coat it: Notre Dame is really good. This is easily the Nittany Lions’ toughest test of the season, but a Penn State win is not as unrealistic as some may think.
Anything can happen under white out conditions at Penn State sporting events, but beyond the crowd, the Nittany Lions can gain a huge advantage by starting fast and getting a goal within five minutes of the drop of the puck. Penn State is at its best when the tempo of the game is at its highest; a quick goal would ensure that Notre Dame strays from its normal structure and aggressively hunts for an equalizer.
Forcing the Fighting Irish to play fast, attacking hockey would play right into the Nittany Lions’ hands and give them a huge chance to pick up a massive upset in Big Ten play.
Notre Dame swept Penn State in South Bend during the teams’ last meetings earlier this season. The Fighting Irish took game one of the series by a score of 5-3, but tightened up defensively to eek out a 1-0 victory the following day to cap off one of many Big Ten sweeps they have strung together this year.
It’s hard for me to imagine a scenario in which Penn State wins this weekend’s series against Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish have lost just one weekend series this season to reigning national champion Denver on October 14. I think Penn State will take two points from this series after a Saturday night shootout win following a regulation loss on Friday.