It was an incredible, memorable night for Penn State fans.
On Oct. 22, 2016, Marcus Allen blocked Ohio State’s field goal attempt, Grant Haley picked up the ball and returned it 60 yards for a touchdown as the Nittany Lion football team beat the Buckeyes 24-21 to send Beaver Stadium, the campus and much of central Pennsylvania into euphoria.
That same night in South Bend, Ind., while the football game was nearing halftime, Andrew Sturtz knocked in a rebound to give the Penn State hockey team a 3-2 overtime win over then-No. 3 Notre Dame. The teams had tied 3-3 the night before, and buoyed by the huge, emotional weekend in both places, winning streaks ensued. The hockey team won the next 10 and assembled a stunning season.
Just over a year later, the No. 19 Nittany Lions are in need of that kind of injection of emotion and confidence, heading to No. 6 Notre Dame for games at 7:35 p.m. Friday and 5:30 p.m. Saturday. Displaying inconsistent play and a porous defense, Penn State needs a big weekend.
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“We’ve been average this year,” senior defenseman Trevor Hamilton said. “If we have one good weekend it can turn around a whole season. Like last year, it can propel us into one of the better teams in the nation.”
Even more rides on this series than a year ago. That previous meeting, it was the third weekend of the season to face a nonconference opponent.
This fall, the Fighting Irish are a Big Ten hockey team. They may have lost their top scorer and goaltender to the NHL after last season’s run to the Frozen Four, but still have a powerful lineup. Their offense scores at almost the same pace as Penn State (3.6 goals per game to PSU’s 3.8, the top two teams in Division I), have the Big Ten’s best power play (25.7 percent) and are paced by Jake Evans, the nation’s leader in points (18) and assists (14).
“They’re a fast team,” Hamilton said. “We’re a fast team as well. If we can match their speed and match their transition, I think it will be a really big track meet.”
As impressive as the Irish may be, the Lions haven’t been concerned with them as much as they would like, instead trying to “get our house in order,” as coach Guy Gadowsky summarized Monday.
In allowing 3.9 goals per game, they rank 57th out of 60 Division I teams. They also rank low in faceoff wins (47.2 percent, 49th), penalty-killing (77.1 percent, 41st) and are dead-last in save percentage (86.9 percent) thanks to allowing 39 goals on 297 shots.
“For what we’re doing, for where we are, I don’t care if it’s nonconference or conference (games),” Gadowsky said Monday about his plans for practices. “It’s pretty well defined what we’re doing this week.”
The team will have to turn around their fortunes without arguably their best player, Denis Smirnov, who missed last weekend’s split with Mercyhurst and will be out a few more weeks with an undisclosed illness.
In a season that lasts into March, a single week of practice and a single weekend of games should not have that much of an impact statistically.
But if the Nittany Lions were ever in need of a few bouncing pucks to go their way and to get an injection of confidence, this is the weekend to do it.
“They’re a really good opponent,” Hamilton said. “We’ve got to go in there with the mentality to get four points, and that would be two huge conference wins for us.”
Men’s college hockey
Who: No. 19 Penn State (5-5, 2-2 Big Ten) at No. 6 Notre Dame (6-3-1, 2-0)
When: 7:35 p.m. Friday; 5:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Compton Family Ice Arena
TV: NBCSN (Saturday)
Radio: WAPY 103.1 FM
Leading scorers: PSU—Andrew Sturtz (6 goals, 7 assists), Denis Smirnov (5G, 6A), Cole Hults (2G, 9A), Chase Berger (2G, 6A), Trevor Hamilton (1G, 7A); ND—Jake Evans (4G, 14A), Jordan Gross (4G, 8A), Bobby Nardella (2G, 8A)