Everybody in the program will tell you how important each series is throughout the year, but right around this time of year is when the intensity begins to elevate. As teams battle for positioning on the national stage, the Nittany Lions and Spartans will engage in a battle for the top of the Big Ten table.
The two teams are currently level at 25 points, one point behind Ohio State for the top spot in the conference and a first-round bye in the Big Ten Tournament. The Nittany Lions have become familiar with regular season games having playoff-like intensity, needing strong pushes at the end of the season to make the NCAA Tournament.
This year is a bit different for Guy Gadowsky’s squad. Penn State is No. 9 in the PairWise rankings heading into the weekend, comfortably within the bubble for the NCAA Tournament.
Michigan State, despite their conference success, is not quite as comfortable. The Spartans are No. 16 in the PairWise. Given that the winner of the Atlantic Hockey Association will likely be outside the top 16, the Spartans could meet the same fate as Penn State did last season when the Nittany Lions were the first team out.
Some might cower at the intensity and drama that will fill virtually every weekend for the rest of the season. The Nittany Lions have learned to embrace that.
“Both teams will need these points, so it’s going to be a lot of fun. Every weekend from here on out, it’s going to be playoff hockey,” forward Evan Barratt said. “This is a good time of year.”
Scouting The Spartans
Expectations in East Lansing weren’t exactly high heading into this season. Picked in the preseason coaches’ poll to finish last in the conference, Michigan State is tied for second in the Big Ten with 25 points, trailing Ohio State by just one point.
Unlike the Nittany Lions, the Spartans won’t win many run-and-gun style games, relying instead on their 16th-ranked — and No. 1 in the Big Ten — defense to grind out low-scoring contests. The Nittany Lions experienced that first-hand earlier this season, when the Spartans upset the Nittany Lions with a 2-0 win at Pegula Ice Arena.
“They’re goalie stole a game from us with the 50-save shutout, whatever it was,” Barratt said of that early-November game. “I mean, it was insane.”
Though Barratt was off just a bit — goalie John Lethemon only stopped all 48 shots he faced — the Nittany Lions learned how comfortable the Spartans are playing that style of game. Lethemon has benefited greatly from that style, sporting the second-best save percentage in the nation.
“They’re not going to do anything special. They’re not going to beat us with talent, obviously, but they’re a hard-nosed team, they work hard,” defenseman Cole Hults said. “They play a very safe game. They’re going to be sitting back on us, making us dump pucks. I think it’s going to be a hard-fought game.”