Know Your Enemy: No. 18 Penn State Hockey vs. Wisconsin In Big Ten Quarterfinals
No. 18 Penn State hockey (19-13-2, 11-12-1 Big Ten) will host Wisconsin (13-16-5, 9-10-5 Big Ten) in the quarterfinals of this year’s Big Ten tournament. A Nittany Lion split with Notre Dame combined with a Badger sweep of Michigan in the regular season’s final weekend to set up a first-round meeting between the two teams.
The puck will drop at 8 p.m. Friday for the series opener, and game two will get started at 6 p.m. If the two teams split games one and two, the rubber match will take place at 6 p.m. Sunday. All three games will take place at Pegula Ice Arena because Penn State finished as a higher seed in the conference standings.
Guy Gadowsky’s program at least needs to reach the conference title game to have a shot at qualifying for the NCAA tournament. Can this weekend double as the start of another magical Big Ten title run?
- K’Andre Miller’s health is perhaps the biggest story entering this weekend’s series. Wisconsin’s star defenseman has scored 22 points in 26 appearances this season, but he was injured after a hard hit in the Badgers’ series against Ohio State. The New York Rangers’ 2018 first-round pick (No. 22 overall) didn’t play against the Nittany Lions two weeks ago, and he’s doubtful to return Friday. His status for the rest of the weekend is currently unclear.
- Revenge will be on Penn State’s mind this weekend after Wisconsin spoiled its senior day. The Badgers bounced back from an 8-2 loss to smash the Nittany Lions 7-3 and deal a critical blow to Penn State’s NCAA tournament hopes. Penn State should have a sour taste in its mouth after that loss, and fans may get a glimpse of that going into the postseason.
- Penn State junior Denis Smirnov put together a trademark performance in his team’s 8-2 victory over the Badgers on February 22. Smirnov scored twice and added two more assists after being held goalless in 11 consecutive games. He scored a goal against Notre Dame in the Nittany Lions’ final series of the regular season — can he keep the good times rolling to kickstart the postseason?
Both teams will probably feel a need to make adjustments from the last time they met two weeks ago. First of all, Penn State needs to make sure the exact opposite of what took place on senior night happens throughout the quarterfinal series.
The Nittany Lions’ 7-3 loss was pretty much over from the first puck drop of the night. Wisconsin completely outclassed the team in every area of the ice, and it seemed like head coach Tony Granato’s side won every loose puck and 50-50 battle throughout the evening. That’s not a coincidence — the Badgers’ physicality and unrelenting pressure bamboozled Penn State, which should expect a similar brand of hockey from a confident team.
Wisconsin enters the postseason on a three-game winning streak after sweeping Michigan last weekend. The Badgers used a balanced attack to score nine goals on the Wolverines, but their defensive game will need to tighten up if they want to advance in the conference tournament. Penn State’s defensive struggles have been well-documented, but it still boasts the best offense in college hockey.
Getting K’Andre Miller back would give Wisconsin a big boost on the blue line. If the first-round talent isn’t back, however, Granato’s team will have to rally to keep the puck out of its net.
Those who make the trek to Pegula Ice Arena won’t witness a blowout like the ones that took place in these teams’ last regular season meeting. I’ll predict a 5-4 Wisconsin win in game one before Penn State rallies to win 5-3 and 4-3 to secure its spot in the next round.
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