No. 1 Penn State (14-2-1) returns home to play the Spartans for a weekend series in the comfy atmosphere of Hockey Valley. With the students returning from winter break this week, there should be plenty of noise inside the Peg. The second game, on Saturday night, will be televised nationwide on the Big Ten Network. It will be a great chance for Penn State to show the college hockey world outside of the Big Ten what it looks like in action. All eyes are looking up at Penn State, who have been at or near the top of the PairWise Rankings for over a month.
Michigan State (4-13-1) comes into the series in a free fall. The program is currently in a rebuilding mode and unfortunately not very much is going well for the bunch. Losers of seven-straight games dating back to Thanksgiving, it has been a while since MSU has tasted a victory. Let’s hope that continues for the the near future.
The Spartans have shown flashes of competence throughout the year but have overall not been able to finish games for the win. Early in the season it beat and tied No. 7 North Dakota, which gave the team a huge boost that wore off pretty quick; it hasn’t won since. Add to that a pair of solid wins versus No. 24 Michigan Tech and No. 36 Princeton earlier in the season, and the Spartans have shown signs of life. It lost a heart-breaker to Michigan in overtime at the Great Lakes Invitational a couple of weeks ago. The team is capable, but if the Lions assert themselves early, this should be a series sweep for the top team in the country.
Michigan State lost goalie Jake Hildebrand to graduation and with him left the team’s ability to hold opposing squads in check defensively. Ed Minney has allowed 3.54 goals per game while his team has only scored a little over two goals per game. Winnipeg draft pick Mason Appleton leads the team with 8 goals and 9 assists. Taro Hirose has 11 points and five other MSU players have 9 total points on the season. Outside of Villiam Haag, the team doesn’t have a serious sniper that can change the game if left open.
Penn State has several dangerous offensive players. Freshman Denis Smirnov leads the team and Big Ten with 28 points. Seven other Penn State players have scored more than 10 points, led by Andrew Sturtz, who has 13 goals midway through the season.
Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects to the Lions’ success this year has been the ability to hold the opposing team to just 1.93 goals per game. Freshman goalie Peyton Jones has 12 wins and a stellar 1.98 goals against average. Backup Chris Funkey has a very nice 0.69 goals against average in limited action but may get a start this weekend.
It is never prudent to expect any team to simply throw their skates out on the ice and come back with a pair of wins. The Lions will have to work hard this weekend, but if it does, the team should sail through the games and come out the other side with a series win. Two wins versus the current No. 49 team in the country won’t help the Lion’s PairWise standing, in fact it could hurt it briefly, but the momentum it would bring is more important at this moment.
Coming off a very important series split on the road with Big Ten-contender Ohio State, who currently holds the No. 13 spot in the PairWise, the Lions hope to keep their minds and skates sharp. In a rare scheduling quirk, the Buckeyes will come to Hockey Valley next week for the final two games that the teams will play in the regular season. If PSU can split or win that series, it will set the team up nicely as we head into the heart of the conference schedule.