|When:||Friday and Saturday 7 p.m.|
|Where:||Pegula Ice Arena, University Park, Pa.|
|Video & Audio:||Free Video Stream and Free Live Audio|
Guy Gadowsky and his rising Penn State (7-1-1) squad will host a team very familiar to the coach and the current players. Alaska-Anchorage (1-7-0) has been on the Penn State schedule for the past three seasons. As the Nittany Lion program continues to develop into a national power in college hockey, its relationship with Alaska-Anchorage is beginning to change.
In 2014 Penn State took an early-season trip to Alaska to face each division-one team it supports, Fairbanks and Anchorage. The games were seen as an opportunity for the program to extend its footprint into the western portion of the continent. It was also a return to Alaska for Gadowsky, who coached for five seasons at Alaska-Fairbanks and is now a member of the university’s Hall of Fame. The Lions were coming off an 8-26-2 result from the first full season at the division-one level and in the Big Ten. When the Lions managed a tie in the first of two Alaska contests, it was a huge step for the program, which wouldn’t have been surprised had it returned with nothing to show for the two games. The early-season tie, on the road with a decent team at the time, Anchorage, was very uplifting. Penn State would go on to finish with a winning record (18-15-4) in 2014, led by Alaska-native Casey Bailey.
It’s easy to forget that just two seasons ago the Lions exceeded expectations by not having a losing record. The tie with Alaska-Anchorage was a bit of a coup at the time for the Lions, a team that was one of the largest, if not slowest, groups in college hockey. The game that day featured a hockey rink that was having trouble with the ice. Pools of water gathered in various areas during play, slowing the puck down unexpectedly and at inopportune times. All hands on deck; rink officials, referees, used squeegees to push the water off the ice during stoppages in play. The slow ice was a favor that the Lions desperately needed in order to play even with Alaska-Anchorage. The game ended in a 3-3 tie at roughly 1:30 A.M. eastern time after Anchorage made a late-game comeback, scoring two late third period goals. It was similar to a football team, a heavy underdog on the road, playing in a windy downpour with a roster that has trouble stopping the pass but is well suited for a messy, run-oriented game. It took everything the Lions had, in addition to the favorable conditions, for the team to tie Anchorage on that day.
Last season the Lions returned to Alaska, the most brutal travel destination in college hockey, for a pair of games with the Seawolves. Penn State won the first game and tied the second, as the program took a step forward to an astounding 21-13-4 record. At the time the Lions won the series in Alaska it was thought to be an upset. By the end of the year it was known that PSU was in fact the better team.
This year Penn State enters the match-up ranked in second-place in the PairWise Rankings. Alaska-Anchorage is currently ranked second-to-last. In just three seasons the fortunes of the two teams have swapped and then some, with Alaska-Anchorage seeing this long road trip as a chance to gain exposure in Happy Valley.
Colin Piatt outlined the challenges facing the Alaska-Anchorage program, which withstood the possibility of being cut from the state of Alaska budget among fiscal uncertainty last year. Just a short time ago Penn State was the low man on the totem pole of college hockey, hoping to gain attention by playing the more-established Alaska teams. Now there are some who look at the lower-ranked opponents on the Lion’s non-conference schedule and wonder if coach Gadowsky is scheduling too many soft games. Those people should remember that many games are scheduled, or agreed to in principle, a couple of seasons prior. What was once a great opportunity for the Lions has now become one of the series that is going to weigh on its strength of schedule.
As time wears on the Lions will be able to schedule a greater number of competitive non-conference games, having a better reputation themselves, making a match with PSU more attractive to the top teams in college hockey.
Scouting the Seawolves
Alaska-Anchorage is currently scoring one goal per game on 19 shots. It is allowing 3.38 goals per game. The statistics are what would be expected early in the season for a team that has just one win. Only two players have scored more than one goal this season, junior forward Matt Anholt (2) and senior forward Brad Duwe (2). In comparison, Penn State has 8 players that have scored two or more goals, led by Andrew Sturtz, who alone has matched the season total of the Seawolves with 8. Goalie Olivier Mantha has allowed 3.01 goals per game with a save percentage of .901.
While the match-up favors the home team Lions, there is one category that it should not ignore, which the Alaska teams tend to dominate. Hitting. Alaska-Anchorage has been known as a team that likes to finish checks and isn’t afraid to play rough. The Lions are a team that can play that style, but it must be careful not to be penalized, which could be the only way that the Seawolves have to even the odds on the ice.
Two seasons ago Seawolves star Brett Cameron absolutely crushed Tim Davision of Wisconsin. While the hit was deemed illegal, and probably was, it is indicative of the tough-as-nails style of play that the Lions will face this weekend. The best chance is to stay out of such situations, taking control of the game on the scoreboard and then remaining disciplined, with heads up and on a swivel while skating down the ice.