As milestones go, this one is fairly minor, but it still says something about the continued progress of the Penn State men’s hockey team.
Just 21/2 years into the program’s Division I history, the Nittany Lions will play their first game in which both teams are ranked — and their first as a ranked team.
After a three-week break for final exams and the holidays, the No. 20 Nittany Lions return to the ice Monday to meet No. 19 Robert Morris on the first night of the Three Rivers Classic at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. The puck drops at 7:35 p.m.
The game follows the first contest between No. 14 Colgate and Western Michigan, who tangle at 4:35 p.m. The losers and winners of the two games will tangle at the same times Tuesday.
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Penn State (9-4-2) has been enjoying the first time it appeared in the national rankings for the last two weeks, earning enough votes in the U.S. College Hockey Online Top 20 poll. The entry came a week after its last game, when the Nittany Lions completed a weekend sweep at Wisconsin — another of the many milestones this year with the first road sweep and first Big Ten sweep. It also left the Lions alone atop the conference standings.
The Lions need to guard against overconfidence heading into the games in Pittsburgh. The Colonials (11-2-3) also have been on a roll, not only with the start to this season but also posting a 28-8-6 since the start of 2014, and have been the highest-scoring team in the nation during that stretch.
The game will match two of the nation’s highest scoring teams. Robert Morris is No. 1 in the nation scoring 4.12 goals per game, while Penn State is sixth at 3.47 per night. The Colonials are led by Cody Wydo, who is third in the nation in scoring with 11 goals and 14 assists. Taylor Holstrom and Casey Bailey are tied for 18th in Division I to pace the Lions, with four goals and 14 assists for Holstrom and 10 goals and eight assists for Bailey.
While there are a few question marks with availability of a few players because of various injuries, the Nittany Lions will have the services of defenseman Erik Autio. The freshman was training with Finland’s national junior team in preparation for the World Junior Championships in Canada, which began Friday, but he did not make the cut to the final 23 players.
The tournament also will close a long road odyssey for the Nittany Lions, who have not played a home game since Oct. 31. They finally get back to Pegula Ice Arena on Jan. 9-10, hosting Ohio State to begin a six-game homestand.