UNIVERSITY PARK — The continuing statement from the Penn State ice hockey team has been one game at a time, one practice at a time and to never overlook any opponents.
The Nittany Lions were not supposed to look ahead and let the mind lose focus on more immediate concerns.
Still, it was a week like this one, when there was an extra-special opponent, that fueled the fire and made them excited to be a part of a fledgling program.
Now that they are finally here, even Guy Gadowsky acknowledges this week is a little extra special.
“The approach doesn’t change, but the excitement level — I’ve got to admit, we’ve been looking forward to this all year,” he said.
What’s so significant about this week?
The Nittany Lions merely will be making their first trip into Big Ten hockey land, facing a perennial power with a two-game visit to Michigan State.
It will be the first real taste of what life will be like next season, when the conference begins its hockey league.
“It’s a big step for our team,” forward David Glen said. “We’re all excited. We’re all looking forward to it. I think it’s a real test. It’ll show where we stand.”
It also will be Penn State’s first trip beyond the western border of the state.
The Nittany Lions will have to anticipate a less-than-welcoming reception from the fans at Munn Ice Arena, who have long been known for their taunting and trash talk with visiting teams. It is part of that initial test, along with the mere step up in quality of opponent, to prepare Penn State for next season.
“It’s something we’ll see a few times in the future,” Glen said. “It’ll be great to get the first one.”
Penn State actually had its first Big Ten encounter a few weeks ago, beating Ohio State 5-4, although that was on the neutral ice of Pittsburgh, with a largely pro-Penn State crowd lending encouragement.
“This is going into Big Ten territory,” Gadowsky said. “Something new for me (with) a Big Ten school. When I was in the CCHA, we played there many times, but I think it’s a little bit different taking a Big Ten opponent into that rink and I’m curious to see how the fans accept us and I’m curious to see how they defend their territory. I’m curious to see how we come out and try to take it.”
If ever there was a time to be tipping the toes into the Big Ten water, now may actually be the time.
The teams from the conference — Penn State is independent while the Spartans, Buckeyes and Michigan are all in the CCHA and Wisconsin and Minnesota are in the WCHA — are mostly having less-than-stellar years. The Golden Gophers are doing rather well, ranked No. 1 in the nation with a 17-3-4 record, but the Badgers are the only other team ranked and holding a winning record at 9-8-5.
Michigan (8-14-2 overall) and Michigan State (6-15-3) are the last two teams in the CCHA standings, and Ohio State (8-11-5) is near the bottom, while Wisconsin is eighth in the WCHA.
“The Big Ten teams, traditionally and historically, have been at the top of the rung,” Gadowsky said. “… It’s not a trend, it’s a blip. You know you’re playing a program that has great tradition, great pride. I’m sure you will see the teams … back on top.”
So, would Gadowsky mind if those struggles continued for one more season?
“Five,” he responded with a grin.
Once the Big Ten is formed, no other conference will be able to rival the history of championship success. Although the Buckeyes do not have that kind of history, the rest of the programs have combined for 23 NCAA titles, led by a nation’s-best nine for the Wolverines.
And even if the Spartans are not at that level this season, the Nittany Lions are hardly thinking it will be an easy weekend in East Lansing.
“We’ll be ready for a powerhouse team,” Glen said. “We’ll be at our best, we’ll be ready to go.”
Prime time programming
The weekend will bring another first for the Nittany Lions with their first appearance on national television. They have been on regional TV before, including on Comcast for Saturday’s win over Vermont in Philadelphia, but this Saturday’s 6:05 p.m. game will be shown on the Big Ten Network.
Friday’s game starts at 7:05 p.m.
Penn State’s final series of the season, visiting Wisconsin in its other Big Ten test, also will get live BTN coverage on Feb. 25.
Something Penn State got accomplished in Saturday’s win that it rarely has this season was getting on the scoreboard first. The opponent has scored first 18 times this year out of 26 games, including the exhibition contests, and that had been the cast in 13 out of the previous 15 games heading into last Saturday.
Gadowsky has been scratching his head trying to figure out how to keep his team from falling into that hole – which will be critical with a tough opponent and tough crowd this weekend.
“I don’t know how to work on it in practice,” Gadowsky said. “We certainly have addressed it numerous times and I think it’s a mental toughness issue. We’ve talked about it in the past and it’s maybe a sign of youth, obviously, but you’ve got to get over it and that’s why you play this season rather than jumping into the Big Ten right away.”