It’s hard to believe that the non-conference portion of the hockey season is halfway completed. With just five more games outside of the Big Ten left on the regular season schedule, the focus on conference foes will begin this weekend.
Wisconsin comes to town with a few years of disappointment in their rear view mirror and a scintillating beam of hope and optimism shining through the windshield. After languishing at the lower half of the Big Ten standings for much of recent memory, the Badgers come to Hockey Valley as the higher-ranked team.
The two game series is not only a chance for fans inside the Pegula Ice Arena to enjoy the show, also a national audience will be watching on the Big Ten Network. Teams and fans from all over the country will be tuning in to see the best that the Big Ten has to offer.
It is an early season series so the teams are still working into the form that they hope to achieve by the end of the year. That being said, these games count equal to the ones in February, so for both sides the points are critical.
While the squads may not be as cohesive as they will be in four months, the players will be competing at the highest level possible. We should see some fireworks. Both teams can score, both sides have a couple of players that like to get on opposing teams’ nerves. The stakes are high; if you want to be the best you have to beat the best. This is the first chance for both teams to show what they’ve got.
Penn State is in rare territory considering it is a relatively new program at the Division 1 level. The talent level on the team is approaching that of the top teams in the country and the fan base is becoming used to winning.
For the past three years the Lions have played well enough to compete for an NCAA Tournament invitation, missing by just one spot last year after making it the previous two. If the team fails to make the tournament this season it will likely be seen as a disappointment for the fans and players. While it is a great to have such high expectations, it is not easy to make the 16-team field.
The team has taken a noticeable turn this year to focus on the defensive side of the puck in order to close the gap between where the program has been and where it wants to be. We are only 5 games in and so far the effort has been uneven, while encouraging.
Here is what coach Gadowsky had to say about it.
“I don’t think we are where we want to be in terms of how we play, our identity. I wish it was as easy as pushing a switch. You have a tendency to think that the identity part, the mentality part of it, comes easy and it doesn’t. And that’s what we are struggling with right now.”
“Our goal at the start of the season was to get better defensively, but that was just half of the goal. The goal really was to get better defensively without giving up any of the offense. And I don’t think any of the coaches are happy, identity wise, with how we are playing on offense. We believe that you don’t have to sacrifice offense to do that, but that’s the area that we really aren’t there yet. We’re just not who we are yet.”
“We’re attempting ten less shots per game than in previous years, so we are not playing with the same tempo and getting to the net. That’s part of it. When you try to use your own skill, it can slow the game down but when you play a team game, you tend to play faster. That’s our general assessment.”
Scouting The Badgers
We got in touch with Drew Hamm over at Wisconsin’s SBN site Bucky’s 5th Quarter to get some insight into the Badger team. It is early in the season but Wisconsin has moved up the rankings based on the overall talent level that they have assembled. Much like the Lions, they are still trying to put it together as a team, not just a group of individual talents.
“Most of the hype in Wisconsin surrounds Cole Caufield and Alex Turcotte, top 15 picks in this past NHL Draft. They have been as advertised. Caufield currently leads the nation in goals scored with 7 and is second in the nation with 1.17 goals per game, an impressive number for anyone, let alone a true freshman. Turcotte, who missed the Clarkson series with an illness, should be back in the lineup for the games against Penn State and that will be key for the Badgers. He’s only played in four games but has three goals and five assists already.”
With superstar defenseman and New York Ranger draft pick K’Andre Miller kicking around on the ice with the two NHL first rounders, there is a great deal of talent on the Badger roster. We asked Drew about some of the other players, who are talented NHL draft picks but that don’t get the attention that Caufield, Turcotte and Miller have gotten.
“One player who is often overlooked with all of the NHL Draft picks on the roster is sophomore left wing Roman Ahcan. Ahcan is tied for the team lead in points with 9 and assists has 7 assists and is +11 on the season. I know plus/minus isn’t the BEST statistic to measure a player’s worth, but it is undeniable that good things happen when Ahcan is on the ice. Another player that I like is third-pairing defenseman Mike Vorlicky. The freshman from Edina, Minn. has stepped into the starting lineup and has played in five of the first six games this year. He’s a solid, if unspectacular, defender that should only continue to get better the longer he’s in the program.”
We asked Drew to speak about the past few seasons, which have been sub .500 for the Badgers, a rare downturn for the program.
“The confidence around this year’s team is the highest it has been in as long as I can remember. The last two years of Mike Eaves’ tenure were downright brutal, with a combined 12 wins, and they sapped a lot of the excitement from the program. Tony Granato has had the team heading in the right direction since he was hired three years ago, but this is the first year where there are expectations. If Wisconsin doesn’t make the NCAA Tournament this year it will be seen as an abject failure and who knows what sort of decisions will be made after the season.”