It’s been 271 days since Penn State took to the ice for a game.
271 days since 11 players had their grand finale at Pegula Ice Arena.
271 days since those xx seconds of mayhem against Minnesota.
271 days since that regular season winning night.
The Nittany Lions were geared up for a rematch with the Golden Gophers in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals when the world shut down. A postseason that was filled with such promise was replaced with one filled with what-ifs.
At long last, a deep sigh of relief can be had and that clock can be reset to zero. There’s hockey to be played tonight.
The Nittany Lions will pick up right where they left off, with a matchup against those same Golden Gophers.
Last season’s regular season title race came down to the wire. Though that Kevin Wall goal gave Penn State the win on that late-February evening, the Nittany Lions weren’t in control of their own destiny. The idle Nittany Lions could just sit back and watch as the chips fell into place on the final weekend of the regular season.
Gadowsky expects a similar title race this season, provided conditions remain perfect.
“There’s obviously another big factor that we haven’t had to deal with in the past. I think there’s the possibility, obviously, of canceled or postponed games, etc.,” he said. “I think if everything was constant, yeah, I think you’re going to see that again.”
Perhaps fittingly, Penn State and Minnesota open the season at opposite ends of the expectations spectrum. In the preseason coaches poll, the Nittany Lions were voted to finish last in the conference. The Golden Gophers were voted to finish first.
It serves as a stark contrast to last season when the Nittany Lions were voted to finish first. For what it’s worth, Penn State was the only team to hold its place in relation to last year’s poll.
“The coaches were right about us last year,” Gadowsky said. “I hope they’re wrong about us this year.”
Whether or not the title race is as thrilling as last season, the Big Ten is once again expected to be one of the stronger conferences in the nation. Five teams are featured in the USCHO top 20 rankings, with Arizona State — temporarily the eighth* Big Ten program — and Notre Dame barely on the outside.
*The Sun Devils are simply playing against Big Ten opponents. Their games won’t be reflected in conference standings and they won’t be eligible for the Big Ten Tournament.
With that in mind, here’s a quick look at each Big Ten(ish) program:
Michigan (18-14-4, 11-10-3-2 Big Ten) — The Wolverines will likely be the Golden Gophers strongest challengers for the regular season title. Goaltender Strauss Mann had a marvelous season and was named the conference’s top goaltender by year’s end. Jake Laker and Will Lockwood will be missed, but this remains a veteran team with a high ceiling. Projected Finish: 2nd
Michigan State (15-19-2, 11-11-2-0 Big Ten) — Two-thirds of the fear-inducing KHL line has now departed, as senior Mitchell Lewandowski finds commonality with Alex Limoges as the last remnants of the trio. Bemidji State graduate transfer Charlie Combs will be looked to as a replacement alongside Lewandowski. He scored 36 goals in three seasons with the Beavers. Projected Finish: 7th
Minnesota (2019-20 record: 16-14-7, 7-8-7-4 Big Ten) — The Golden Gophers were voted the conference favorites in this year’s coaches poll, and for good reason. Virtually everyone is returning for head coach Bob Motzko, notably nine of the team’s top 10 scorers from last year. Experience will be key in this shortened, conference-only season, and the Golden Gophers finally have plenty of that. Projected Finish: 1st
Notre Dame (15-15-7, 9-9-6-4 Big Ten) — The big story here is the departure of Cale Morris. For what seemed like an eternity, Morris was the anchor of the Fighting Irish. Now, head coach Jeff Jackson will rely on a tandem with 21 combined games under its belt. Projected Finish: 5th
Ohio State (20-11-5, 11-9-4-1 Big Ten) — Tommy Napier has a claim to Mann’s throne as the conference’s top goaltender. Their numbers were nearly identical, but the Buckeyes struggles were less about the play of their goalkeeper. Their 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons were practically carbon copies of each other. The Buckeyes will need to take that next step forward this season without the likes of Tanner Laczynski and Carson Meyer. Projected Finish: 3rd
Penn State (20-10-4, 12-8-4-1 Big Ten) — We’ve got a deeper dive into how the Nittany Lions may perform this season. Guy Gadowsky may have lost too many key pieces to reclaim the regular season title, but Gadowsky knows how to get more out of less. The offense likely won’t be as potent this season, the defense and goaltending is suspect at best. Projected Finish: 4th
Wisconsin (14-20-2, 7-15-2-2 Big Ten) — The Badgers are loaded with talent. Despite losing Alex Turcotte and K’Andre Miller over the offseason, the Badgers still boast 10 NHL draft picks — two first rounders — on their roster, including reigning Big Ten freshman of the year Cole Caufield. Caufield netted 19 goals last season, the most in the Big Ten and tied for most among all NCAA freshmen. A similar summary could have been written before last season, in which the Badgers were last in the Big Ten. Talent only goes so far. Projected Finish: 6th
Where will Penn State finish in the Big Ten?
This poll is closed
Honorable Mention: Arizona State (22-11-3) — Though the Sun Devils aren’t a full-blown Big Ten program, these games are no less important. Akin to Notre Dame football temporarily joining the ACC, the Sun Devils needed a conference to help them build a resume for the NCAA Tournament, and the seven-team Big Ten seemed a natural partner. They’ll be led by scoring phenom Johnny Walker, who has hit 20 goals in each of the past two seasons, and James Sanchez, whose 30 assists last season would have led the Big Ten. A familiar face will also don the maroon and gold this year, as Wisconsin transfer Sean Dhooghe will look to continue to be a thorn in every Big Ten program’s side. Projected Finish: 1st, if only in uniform design