It seems like ages since the Penn State and Wisconsin hockey teams last met on the ice.
When they first tangled, it marked the Nittany Lions’ first official Big Ten game, and they were still trying to find cohesiveness and a grasp on their identity.
The Badgers were not doing much better, at the time sporting only one more win than Penn State and ranked No. 17 in the country.
Both are different teams in the three months since those first two meetings in Madison, Wis., as they tangle again at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Pegula Ice Arena.
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The Nittany Lions have a pair of Big Ten wins and a number of strong showings in losses, while the Badgers have climbed all the way to No. 5 in the national rankings.
Penn State players are eager to show off their improvement.
“We’re a completely different team,” junior defenseman Patrick Koudys said. “I’m excited to have them in here and show them what we’ve accomplished as a team.”
With a few exceptions, the Nittany Lions have played rather well since the start of the new year, despite the losses, and have been competitive in most games. Along with two wins and a tie in that stretch are five one-goal losses, including the last outing against new-No. 1 Minnesota 2-1 last Saturday.
“We’re going to go into this game like we did at Minnesota,” sophomore forward Curtis Loik said. “We’re not going to change anything up. We’re going to apply the same principles that we’ve applied to all the other teams we’ve played.”
While just a few weeks or a month have separated most of the home and away meetings with the other four teams in the Big Ten, facing the Badgers essentially at each end of the conference season provides a chance to make bigger comparisons.
“We feel we’re a much better team and we want to see if that’s going to show,” coach Guy Gadowsky said. “I’m sure they’ve improved in areas as well, but we feel we have improved a lot in a number of areas and I think the guys are hungry to prove that.”
To beat the Badgers, Penn State will have to get the puck past one of the nation’s top goaltenders, Joel Rumpel, who is third in Division I and leads the Big Ten in goals-against (1.83 per game), and is tied for second in the nation and tops the conference in save percentage (.936).
“We’re facing some of the best goaltenders in the NCAA, night in and night out,” Gadowsky said. “Your goaltender is your most important penalty-killer, and we’re facing the best in the nation.”
However, Wisconsin is a decidedly different team on the road than at its Kohl Center, which has a much bigger ice surface than Pegula’s NHL-size sheet. The Kohl Center’s ice is just a few feet short of an Olympic-size rink.
That may be a factor in the Badgers, who were off last weekend, sporting just a 2-7-1 record away from home. Only six of those games have been on an NHL-size sheet.
“The biggest difference is the fact when you play on a big sheet to go to a small sheet,” Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves told the media in Madison this week. “I think once that we make that and we’ve played on that small sheet, we don’t have any issues with the small sheet. It’s a different game. Things happen quicker because of less time and space, and we need to get used to that. We’re going in now with the rest of our games are on small sheets.”
While that may give Penn State a bit of an extra home-ice advantage, the Nittany Lions also will be missing something else: Some students. Spring break starts this weekend, and Gadowsky is hoping the student section is not too empty.
“We’ll be curious,” Gadowsky said. “It’s too bad because I just love the students. It’s so much fun with them here.”
But with a chance to face a third team ranked among the nation’s top five, the Nittany Lions are ready for the challenge.
“We have confidence in ourselves that we’ve improved a lot, regardless of what the results are going to be this weekend,” Gadowsky said. “But if we could see success against these two teams, they’re very good teams, obviously it would give us even more confidence going into the tournament.”