For a program in its sixth year of existence that has already won its Conference Tournament Championship and won its first NCAA Tournament game, Penn State will be entering some uncharted territory this weekend.
Friday’s matchup against Big Ten foe Minnesota marks the earliest the Nittany Lions have opened conference play since becoming a Division-I program in 2012.
In seasons past, the Lions have had a non-conference schedule of roughly 10 games to tune up for the Big Ten schedule. But with the addition of Notre Dame creating an odd number of teams in the Big Ten, the conference slate will have to be spread out across the season.
Coach Guy Gadowsky isn’t exactly sure how the quick transition into conference play will unfold.
“We sort of get used to it, even though its a relatively new league, that you get some warm up games and then jump right into it,” he said. “There might be some uncharacteristic mistakes in Big Ten games this early that you normally wouldn’t see, but it’s the same for both teams.”
The Lions have had a nearly identical record in the past three seasons of conference play, with 10-9-1-0 records in 2014-15 and 2016-17 split by a 10-9-1-1 showing in 2015-16. Their first conference foe of the season, the Golden Gophers, has won the Big Ten regular season crown in all four years of the conference’s existence and is favored to win the title again this year.
Much like last season, the Lions’ will prepare for this weekend like any other.
“We kind of have the same objectives every game,” defenseman Kevin Kerr said. “For sure, go out there and compete as hard as we possibly can and execute our game plan no matter who we’re playing.
“With that said, whenever it’s a Big Ten game, it’s a little bit more hyped up for sure and people are a little bit more amped up, but as a team we just go out there with the same objectives every game.”
Penn State prides itself on several aspects of its game. Of course, the Nittany Lions have one of the most explosive offenses in the nation, leading the NCAA in goals- and shots-per-game in 2016-17.
That offensive success hinges on an underrated aspect of the Lions’ game: their success in the faceoff circle.
The Lions routinely outperformed the opposition on faceoffs, which allowed them to gain and maintain possession of the puck and pepper the opposing goalie with shots. This season has been a different story so far.
In their opening weekend in New York, the Lions have clocked in at just 44 percent on faceoffs. While Gadowsky explained that possessing the puck off the faceoff wasn’t crucial to his team’s success, the mindset that comes with winning faceoffs carries over to the desire to retrieve pucks while play is underway, something that is essential to the Lions’ identity.
“We don’t have a plan B when we’re not winning,” he said. “We just need to win, or else we can’t be us.”
Evan Barratt Injury Update
It didn’t take long for Evan Barratt to find his way into the lineup. Perhaps the most hyped player in Penn State’s history, Barratt was slotted alongside Chase Berger and Andrew Sturtz on the Nittany Lions’ top line for their season opener against Clarkson.
Unfortunately for the Lions, it may be a while before that trio lines up together again.
Coach Guy Gadowsky announced Monday that Barratt will be out of the lineup for the foreseeable future with an “upper-body injury” sustained in that game against the Golden Knights. Barratt is sure to miss this weekend against Minnesota, Gadowsky said, and could be out beyond this series with the Golden Gophers.
The injury could be a major blow to the Lions should it last long-term. Barratt brings an exceptional skill set to the lineup with the ability to create chances not only for himself but also for his linemates.
Gadowsky certainly has some options to replace Barratt on the top line. Blake Gober filled that role against St. Lawrence, but Alex Limoges may move up from the third line after an impressive showing against the Skating Saints. Fellow freshman Sam Sternschein may also enter the lineup to replace Barratt.