No. 15 Penn State Hockey’s Shot At Winning The Big Ten Tournament
The 2017-18 NCAA men’s hockey regular season came to an end last weekend. No. 15 Penn State swept No. 11 Minnesota for the first time in program history to clinch home-ice advantage in the first round of the tournament. The Golden Gophers will come right back to Pegula Ice Arena for a best-of-three series, and the winner will advance to the single-elimination semifinals against either Notre Dame or Ohio State.
Guy Gadowsky’s Nittany Lions enter this year’s Big Ten tournament in an eerily similar spot to the one they were in last year: Advancing one round means an NCAA Tournament berth is likely, while making it to the final all but guarantees a second-consecutive year in the national tournament for Penn State. The team’s focus is currently occupied with the task at hand, which is defending the Big Ten crown. Can the Nittany Lions repeat as champions or will the new format bring a new champion along with it?
Why Penn State Can Win The Conference
Last year’s tournament clearly shows that Penn State has what it takes to win a conference championship. Liam Folkes’ heroics at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit led to the most iconic victory in Penn State hockey history, and there’s nothing that says the team can’t defend its crown this year.
The team limped into the final series of the regular season, but got the results it needed to ensure Pegula Ice Arena would host its first-ever postseason game. Penn State fired on all cylinders throughout the weekend en route to a decisive sweep over Don Lucia’s Golden Gophers. There’s no indications that Penn State will slow down as the Big Ten tournament gets started.
Guy Gadowsky’s squad has three forward lines that can produce offense at a high level, especially now that freshmen Alex Limoges and Evan Barratt are finding the scoresheet more often. Their line with Folkes combined for five goals and two assists against Minnesota, breaking out after playing consistent, aggressive hockey for most of the regular season.
Penn State’s two big lines are known commodities. Chase Berger and Andrew Sturtz are a familiar duo that can score big goals at any time alongside Alec Marsh, and the always-dangerous Denis Smirnov combines with underrated sophomores Nate Sucese and Brandon Biro to create a lethal scoring line. The fact that Limoges and Barratt are starting to find the back of the net will create loads of problems for the rest of the conference’s defensive units.
Speaking of defense, Penn State’s group of six defensemen stepped up in a big way against Minnesota, allowing just three goals against the Gophers’ potent attack. The entire unit’s physicality and willingness to fill shooting lanes to block shots was on display all weekend. Peyton Jones was also spectacular in goal, stopping 52 of 55 shots as he was named the Big Ten’s second star of the week for his heroics.
If the offense continues to click and the defense and goaltender play like they did in the final regular season series, Penn State is one of the favorites to win it all and clinch an automatic NCAA Tournament bid in the process.
Why Penn State Can’t Win The Conference
Penn State beat five of its six conference opponents at least once in the regular season, and Notre Dame is the only team that the Nittany Lions failed to defeat. Penn State lost the first three matchups in regulation before recording a tie/shootout loss in the two teams’ final meeting of the season at Pegula Ice Arena. Barring at least one major upset, the Fighting Irish stand in the way of Penn State’s quest to repeat as Big Ten champions.
Notre Dame came into the Big Ten and dominated all challengers in conference play, wrapping up a regular season title and earning a first-round bye in the process. If No. 2 Ohio State and No. 3 Michigan each win their quarterfinal series and Penn State advances, the Nittany Lions will take on Notre Dame in the semifinal as the lowest-remaining seed in the conference.
The Fighting Irish are a lock to qualify for the NCAA Tournament and have stayed in the top five of the national rankings for most of the 2017-18 season. Penn State played tight games against them in South Bend and back at Pegula in February, but couldn’t find a way to take down the Big Ten’s top dogs.
As for Penn State, the team isn’t invincible, as evidenced by its eight-game losing streak that nearly cost it a shot at an NCAA Tournament bid. While the Nittany Lions played well enough to win at times during the skid, they couldn’t find ways to get results due to offensive power outages and defensive lapses.
The Nittany Lions’ title defense begins this weekend at Pegula Ice Arena against No. 11 Minnesota. The puck goes down at 7 p.m. for game one of the series on Friday, followed by 7 p.m. puck drops on Saturday and, if necessary, Sunday.