Penn State comes into the weekend with a share of the Big Ten lead and No. 6 PairWise ranking. It’s hard to believe that after this series, only two regular-season games will be played at the Pegula Ice Arena this year. It should be a great weekend for fans.
The first game will be televised nationally on the Big Ten Network, which will provide a national audience for a program that has already had the eye of hockey fans from coast to coast for much of the season. For most of the year Guy Gadowsky’s squad has been in the top-10 of the PairWise Rankings and with a veteran team, no one would be surprised if they made a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
Before they get that chance the Lions will need a solid finish to the season. Notre Dame (11-11-4) has slipped to No. 27 in the PairWise Rankings and would need a sharp turnaround to return to the NCAA Tournament. For the Irish, this series is a chance to get a pair of wins that would make it possible for them to win their way into an at-large bid with a strong finish to the season.
If Penn State sweeps the series it would end Notre Dame’s chances of getting to the post-season without winning the conference tournament. Things could get contentious on Saturday night if the Lions take game one.
The second game of the series will feature an alternate jersey for the Lions, an all-white affair that will be called the White Rush and is based on Penn State football road jerseys. Fans are encouraged to wear white to create an atmosphere designed to leave the Irish snow blind.
Guy Gadowsky was first drawn to Connor McMenamin in the recruiting process for his 200-foot game. It’s something Gadowsky cherishes in all his players; dependability in the defensive zone and a scoring touch in the offensive zone.
Those traits were prevalent in his final season in the USHL. As captain of the Tri-City Storm, McMenamin finished second on the team in goals and fourth in points while serving as one of the team’s top penalty killers.
McMenamin has kept that title under Gadowsky, spending time with Nikita Pavlychev on the team’s top penalty killing duo. Gadowsky preaches that those who put in that hard work are looked upon favorably by hockey’s higher powers.
“It seems like the Hockey Gods do shine on players like that and I think Connor is a great example. He’s a great guy who plays on the defensive side of the puck, who doesn’t cheat the game, who absolutely plays for the team,” Gadowsky said Monday. “It seems like guys like that score big goals.”
McMenamin scored arguably the biggest goal of the season on Saturday night. His goal less than a minute into overtime gave Penn State a 2-1 win over Michigan State and a weekend split with the Spartans.
While the freshman-filled fourth line doesn’t have the same level of production as the top three trios, Gadowsky seldom hesitates sending them over the boards in key situations.
“For him to have that trust in us and put us out there almost as much as the other lines, it’s definitely a big confidence boost,” McMenamin said.
With Minnesota sweeping Ohio State over the weekend, the Nittany Lions moved into a tie with the Spartans for first place in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions by no means have an easy schedule the rest of the way, but may have the most favorable among the trio of title contenders.
McMenamin and the Nittany Lions breathed a sigh of relief as his wrister from the slot found the back of the Spartans’ net.
“I’d say big time. I mean, it was a battle. It was definitely a playoff-type game, so to get that win I think was a huge confidence boost for us,” McMenamin said.
The best defensemen are often the ones who go unnoticed on a nightly basis. Cole Hults has become a pillar of consistency on the blue line. We had a chance to talk to Hults and his coach earlier in the week.
Guy Gadowsky: “The funny thing about that is, it doesn’t look a lot different because he’s such a consistent non-flashy, high-performing, low-risk guy. I think his points are usually just a byproduct of really high-quality hockey.”
“That’s probably the biggest compliment, that his highest end is not that much different than his lowest.”
“He asked when he came in, after a couple months or so, ‘What could I do better?’ The answer was, ‘When I see it, I’ll tell you. You just do what you do.’”
Hults: “I think it’s just being more consistent. I’ve definitely gotten a lot stronger just through, we work out a lot. We play 40 games a year compared to when I played in the USHL it was 60. It wasn’t much development strength-wise, so I think from that standpoint, I’m a lot stronger.”
“I think it’s just a whole confidence thing. I’m a junior now, so I think it’s just, I’ve been here, it’s not new to me anymore. It just got easier to play my game. I kind of figured out how to prepare and get ready for games. That’s probably the biggest change for me.”
“I just kind of shoot more pucks. Going into the season, I wanted to shoot more pucks.”
“The forwards know we’re getting it to the net, so they’re going there early on and I think that’s kind of why we’ve had a lot of success with that too.”
“He doesn’t ever get mad for you shooting a puck.”