UNIVERSITY PARK — On Feb. 25, the Penn State men’s hockey team had quite possibly the biggest highlight of its inaugural Division I campaign.
In the final game of the season, Taylor Holstrom’s overtime goal gave the Nittany Lions a 3-2 win over Wisconsin, sending better than 9,000 Badger fans home in disappointment.
Penn State heads back to the Kohl Center this weekend with a little more on the line — the official welcome to the Big Ten for the Nittany Lions in hockey.
“This is what we’ve been working hard for all season,” junior defenseman Patrick Koudys said. “This weekend’s going to be a good test.”
The six-team conference schedule got started last weekend with Michigan taking two games from Ohio State and No. 1 Minnesota sweeping the No. 17 Badgers.
Following two-game sweeps at the hands of No. 7 UMass-Lowell and No. 11 Union, the games Friday and Saturday conclude the toughest stretch in the Penn State program’s youthful history so far.
“It’s a long season. We know how it is,” freshman defenseman David Thompson said. “Luckily we’re just getting into the Big Ten right now. They’re great competition. It’s great to finally start seeing these teams that are very big and prominent in the nation.”
The Badgers (4-5-1) were as high as No 2 in the nation early in the season but have put up a 2-5-1 record in their last eight games. The last one was especially tough, giving up a goal to the Golden Gophers with 26 seconds left to lose 4-3.
Not that the Nittany Lions would give them any sympathy, surrendering a goal with three seconds left Sunday night to fall to Union 5-4 after once holding a 4-1 lead.
The bitterness of that loss has been tough to erase, but having such a big weekend, with games at 8 p.m. Friday and 9 p.m. Saturday, makes it much easier to look forward and not backward.
“We wouldn’t talk about it,” freshman forward Zach Saar said. “But we turned the page and you move on. We’ve got plenty to keep us busy right now. We’ve got Wisconsin to focus on.”
Everyone had the day off Monday, so Tuesday was the first time the coaches were with the players since Sunday night’s loss. Head coach Guy Gadowsky, who was quite disappointed Sunday night after the setback, thought the team was “a little more businesslike” in their approach Tuesday.
“I don’t know if that has to do with losing a game in the last three seconds, or the Big Ten’s coming,” Gadowsky said.
The Nittany Lions know the Badgers will be focused regardless of what happened last weekend.
Last season, the Badgers were fighting for playoff position in the old WCHA and had dominated the Nittany Lions 5-0 in the first game of the weekend, outshooting Penn State 51-22. Maybe they let up a little the next night, but the Lions were certainly more inspired to come back and get the win.
The subject has come up in the Badger locker room already.
“I know they remember that, in talking to some of them today,” Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves told the media in Madison on Monday. “That will be there in our minds as we get ready to win.”
Gadowsky wasn’t surprised to hear the Badgers are still talking about the loss.
“We didn’t need to hear it from Coach Eaves to certainly expect that,” Gadowsky said. “That was a pretty important point of the season for them. I’m sure they weren’t happy about it. I’m sure they don’t want that to happen again. … I’m sure that they’ve been looking forward to this game. That’s fine by us.”
Penn State will have a few goals if it hopes to skate away with another road win, including cutting down on penalties. The Nittany Lions are fourth in the nation in penalty minutes, although they at least have dropped from No. 2. They also will have to do better killing penalties, allowing the Dutchmen to convert on 3 of 5 power plays on Sunday.
The team also would not mind ending its four-game losing skid.
But the Nittany Lions will hit another major milestone for the program, and they are focused on the challenge.
“Everybody that’s here, 95 percent of the players and the staff that are here, are here largely due to the opportunity to play in the Big Ten Conference,” Gadowsky said. “It’s something that’s very important to college hockey. It’s truly an honor to play in this league and compete against the programs that we have.”
“It’s going to be exciting in the fact that we’re going to see the best competition out there,” Thompson said. “But at the same time we know it’s not going to be easy.”