It is impossible to overstate the magnitude of the series this weekend at the Pegula Ice Arena. No. 6 Penn State (18-6-2) and No. 4 Minnesota (18-8-2) will take the ice as the two highest-ranked teams to square off at the Peg since it opened four years ago. Both games of the series will be televised nationally on the Big Ten Network, and eyes from Alaska-Anchorage to Alabama-Huntsville and everywhere in between will be watching to see what happens.
As if the two teams needed more attention, the Penn State basketball team has the weekend off and the wrestling team has a very important match on the road on Sunday versus Oklahoma State. So the stage is clear in Hockey Valley for Guy Gadowsky’s team on Friday and Saturday. It’s also THON weekend, which will draw even more attention to the area. The national broadcast of the hockey games will certainly feature a great deal of positive publicity for the philanthropic event as well.
With six games remaining in the regular-season following the two games this weekend, it is too early to rule anything out, on paper, regardless how the series unfolds.
Penn State currently trails Minnesota by five points in the Big Ten standings. A series dominated by either team would drastically alter the race for the top spot in the conference tournament. A split series would push the drama to next weekend, but it would benefit Minnesota as time would become its ally. Wisconsin is currently in second place, and is set to be the final visitor of the year at Pegula Ice Arena in three weeks.
The top-two teams in the Big Ten regular-season standings will receive a bye in the first round of the Big Ten tournament. That is a very important advantage for any team with hopes of winning the conference tournament championship, and the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament that comes with it. The way things are shaping up, the top-two, maybe even the top-three finishers in the Big Ten regular-season standings will have done enough to gain an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Those details that will unfold over the next month so there’s not much sense in hypothesizing at this point on the possible outcomes.
The results this weekend will go a long way in setting the table for the stretch-run.
The Gophers are 11-3-0 over the last 14 games, which has helped the team climb to the top-5 in the national rankings. There’s no surprise that Minnesota is currently ranked No. 4 in the PairWise and is leading the Big Ten. Don Lucia’s squad has won the Big Ten regular-season title in each of the first three seasons the league has competed.
They are the same team that swept the Lions two weeks ago, with one major difference: the venue. When Minnesota plays at home, in-conference, it wins at a rate of roughly 90%. The larger-than-normal ice sheet at Mariucci Arena, in addition to a very supportive fan base makes it very hard to come out with a win for the visiting team. Add to that the talent on the roster and the skill of the coaching staff, and it is difficult to beat Minnesota anywhere you drop the puck.
Penn State fans circled this weekend on the calendar long before it was known that the two teams would be competing for such high stakes. Toward the end of the game, just before Michigan and Wisconsin take the ice on the Big Ten Network, perhaps the largest audience to ever watch a Penn State hockey game, at home and in the stands, will be glued to the action. The four-largest fan bases in the Big Ten will be tuned in at the same time. It couldn’t get any bigger than this with 8 games left on the regular-season schedule.