Coming off an opening weekend that saw the team split on the road, losing on Friday night 2-1 to Clarkson and winning on Saturday 4-1 versus St. Lawrence, Guy Gadowsky’s team has its hands full in Minnesota.
The Gophers are a strong team, as usual, and are picked by most college hockey prognosticators to win the Big Ten conference regular-season title. Since the Big Ten conference began play there has only ever been one regular-season champion; the Minnesota Golden Gophers. This match-up pits the returning regular-season champions and the B1G Tournament champion Penn State Nittany Lions.
The Gophers return all-everything junior goalie Eric Schierhorn. Schierhorn has been named Big Ten Goaltender of the Year in each of his two seasons at Minnesota. So far he has played every minute of both Gopher games this season, which isn’t surprising. Last season the backup goalie, Nick Lehr, logged just 25 minutes in two appearances. Empty net logged 15 minutes for Minnesota, just off Lehr’s pace.
The leading scorer from last season, Tyler Sheehy, returns as does a host of other decorated, talented players. The Gophers are the type of program that reloads when great players leave; it has been a long time since the team has been in a rebuilding phase. The Lions are heading into similar territory, and this may be one of the first times that the team will travel to Mariucci Arena with a feeling that it could not just play competitively, but split or win the series.
Penn State has only won once in eight tries on the road versus Minnesota since the Big Ten formed in 2013. Any addition to that win total this weekend would be a massive early-season boost for the Penn State squad.
Telling The Future With Chris and Colin
Hot takes can keep you warm on a cool fall evening like a steamy cup of hot chocolate at the hockey rink. Here are some thoughts that the BSD hockey reporting tandem has of the upcoming season.
We said the same last season, but this could well be the most talented group of players Guy Gadowsky has had at his disposal in his time at Penn State. While all-time leading scorer David Goodwin has graduated and program record holder Vince Pedrie left early, the Nittany Lions have brought in players who can replace their production and then some, not to mention the returning talent that has produced at extraordinary levels.
Andrew Sturtz should pass Casey Bailey for the all-time goal record of 45 (he’s currently at 40) while Denis Smirnov could surpass Goodwin’s program mark of 128 points should he stay at Penn State beyond this season (his 47 points last year pans out to 141 points in three seasons).
Evan Barratt has the talent to push Smirnov for the team lead in points, though his “upper-body injury” will limit his playing time and could impact his offensive production in the near future. Cole Hults looks poised to replace Pedrie on the team’s second pairing with Erik Autio and while he has yet to find the score sheet, he looks very comfortable in the top-four role.
Chris will also touch on this later, but I’d be remissed if I didn’t touch on it in my predictions. Penn State was picked to finish fourth in the Big Ten in the preseason polls. That would be familiar territory for the Nittany Lions, who have finished fourth in two of the past three seasons. It also may be a fair assessment of the talent comparison between the Lions and the rest of the Big Ten. Minnesota and Notre Dame are likely to claim the top two spots — the Golden Gophers have won the regular season crown all four years of the conference’s existence — while Michigan and Michigan State are expected to be at the bottom of the standings. Ohio State can surprise many and make a push, while Wisconsin will have to overcome the loss of Luke Kunin to stay competitive — not a difficult task with the likes of Trent Frederic available and a goalie like Kyle Hayton between the pipes.
(I have Penn State tabbed at third in the conference behind Minnesota and first-place Notre Dame, for the record.)
Finishing anywhere between second and fourth would bring a best-of-three series to Hockey Valley. The atmosphere surrounding that series would top every White Out game Pegula Ice Arena has hosted, and would give the Lions a significant advantage. They could easily carry the momentum into the single elimination semifinals and potentially another appearance in the Big Ten Tournament Championship.
Penn State’s success last season largely hinged on the performance of Peyton Jones. The Nittany Lions had no trouble racking up goals last season, but Jones looked shaky at times and surrendered the occasional soft goal too often. Mental strength is as important as physical strength in goaltending. While Jones may be the most athletically gifted goalie Penn State has had, his mentality wasn’t always at its best last season. That seems to have changed this year.
While the Lions are just two games into the season and their toughest challenge was a 2-1 loss to No. 15 Clarkson, Jones said prior to the season that he worked on and improved his mental toughness during the offseason with the help of volunteer assistant coach Kyle MacDonald. MacDonald was a backup goalie at St. Lawrence, appearing in seven games between the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons.
That assistance should propel Jones to greater heights than he achieved as a freshman last season, one that concluded with him being named the Most Outstanding player in the Big Ten Tournament and helping Penn State to its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
The Lions were picked to finish fourth in the Big Ten in the preseason polls that ultimately don’t matter. Let’s assume that this is correct, that after the regular-season concludes, Penn State is in fourth place in the Big Ten standings. This would mean that there would be a best-of-three first-round Big Ten Tournament series held in State College. It would be a great atmosphere for the team, which would also be favored to win. Last season four current Big Ten teams, Notre Dame, Minnesota, Penn State, and Ohio State, made the NCAA tournament. Wisconsin barely missed out making it a fourth team from the then six-team B1G conference.
It is likely that at least three Big Ten teams will make the NCAA Tournament at the end of the year. It’s too early to speculate on the chances of the conference gaining four teams in the tournament, but it is not out of the question. Another thing to remember should the Lions finish in fourth place following the regular season; Guy Gadowsky’s team finished fourth last year in the regular-season before going on to win the Big Ten tournament.
There will always be those in the college hockey world that would prefer that Big Ten hockey would go away and never come back. For the first few years of Big Ten play, it was easy for critics of the league to point to the fact that there were typically only two NCAA tournament-caliber teams per season in the conference.
Now that has changed and there seems to be no end in sight. Not only is the Big Ten not going anywhere, it is strengthening, adding depth, adding television exposure, and threatening leagues such as the Hockey East and NCHC for the reputation of being the best conference in the sport. At this point the NCHC, featuring returning National Champion Denver, North Dakota, and St. Cloud State, has the edge in overall talent. The Hockey East, with its history and depth top to bottom, probably still has an edge on the Big Ten as well.
But the winds have changed in the college hockey world. No longer are critics pointing to the talent to disparage the Big Ten, since that is not a reasonable avenue of attack.
Prior to the match-up with Denver in the second game of the NCAA tournament last season I heard a conversation between several Penn State players. The topic came around to the Minnesota Gophers, though the team was not on the schedule that day or the remainder of the year. It shows the amount of consideration that the Lions give, the amount of respect they have for the Minnesota program. The players spoke about how they feel that they understand how to play with Minnesota on their home ice. At the same time the players acknowledged that knowing what the team is trying to do and stopping it are two different things. It was interesting to watch since the circle of a half-dozen Penn State players seemed in agreement about it.
The mystery of the awkward angles on the larger sheet of ice at Mariucci Arena is no longer an unknown to this team of young veterans. That is a drastic change over previous years. For the first time the Lions are heading to Minnesota with the talent and confidence to win or split the series.
What expectations, if any, do you place on the team this year? What do you look forward to most in the coming months? What parts of the college hockey fan experience do you most enjoy?