UNIVERSITY PARK — It will be the biggest test of the season, and the biggest test of the fledgling program’s history.
The Nittany Lions are looking forward to the challenge.
After playing just two games since Dec. 7, and none at home since Dec. 1, the Penn State men’s ice hockey team hosts No. 1 Minnesota at 7 p.m. Sunday at Pegula Ice Arena.
“Now we get another opportunity against the best,” coach Guy Gadowsky said, “… to see if we can play a good game against the team in the country.”
The game also marks the first Big Ten hockey game in State College to open the two-game series. The teams tangle again at 7 p.m. Monday.
The series marks the latest challenge in a string of high-powered opponents for the Nittany Lions (4-10-1) have lost seven of their last eight games – all against teams ranked among the nation’s top 14 teams in the U.S. College Hockey Online poll. The run has included setbacks against No. 9 UMass-Lowell (twice), No. 4 Union (twice), No. 14 Wisconsin (twice) and No. 5 Boston College (once).
However, since falling to the Badgers, the Nittany Lions have only been on the ice twice, leaving a lot of down time to steady the ship.
“We actually felt we were starting to get it together and play well,” Gadowsky said. “So we’ve tried to maintain that through the break. We’ll see if it happens.”
The Golden Gophers (13-2-3) will give quite a test.
They enter the weekend sporting the nation’s second-best offense, netting 3.94 goals per game, also averaging 37 shots per game, and the roster has nine athletes drafted by NHL teams.
“That actually excites me a lot,” said goalie Matthew Skoff, who was unsure if he would be starting this weekend. “Any time I get a lot of pucks in a game is fun for me. But that being said, they’re a great team, ranked No. 1 for a reason. It’ll be two pretty tough games.”
The Nittany Lions got a taste of facing a high-powered offense in their last game, when they lost 8-2 to Boston College on Dec. 28. The Eagles have the nation’s top scoring offense at 4.42 goals per game.
Penn State players can see the similarities.
“They have a lot of skill like Boston College, they’re very fast and they like to make plays,” forward Eric Scheid said. “The down side is they do like to take some risks to make those plays, so if we just play tight defensively and capitalize on their mistakes, we should be all right.”
The offensive style will certainly stretch the Nittany Lion defense, which ranks 54th in the nation allowing 3.93 goals per game. The Penn State offense is scoring just 2.47 goals a night, which ranks 46th.
“We’ve just got to play our game, stick to what makes us tick and what we do well,” defenseman Patrick Koudys said. “If we stay within our game plan, not worry about them and just do what we need to do we’ll be fine.”
A couple Nittany Lions have a little extra familiarity with the Gophers, and not just because they are natives of Minnesota.
Scheid transferred from Alaska-Anchorage, which was a member of the WCHA conference with Minnesota last season and played them twice.
Even more familiar with the team is forward Max Gardiner, who played 17 games as a freshman with the Gophers.
“I’m going to treat it like any other weekend,” Gardiner said. “I’ve got some buddies on the team, for sure, but we’re going ready to go, ready to go to battle. I’m going to play it like any other game, but it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
They all will just be happy to be home again, having not been in front of Nittany Lion fans for nearly a month-and-a-half. With students returning for the start of the new semester Monday, the student section should be at its best.
“Hopefully we’ll get this place rocking again,” Skoff said. “Hopefully we’ll get a good showing. We’re going to need the seventh man out there.”