The scenarios are too many to enumerate, but it’s safe to say the immediate future for the Penn State men’s hockey team rests on their sticks.
This part is very simple: Win both games this weekend, and the Nittany Lions (18-12-4, 10-7-1 Big Ten) can lock up a first-round bye for the conference tournament next week. A little help would get them the No. 1 seed.
The fact that it is the final weekend of the regular season and this third-year varsity program is in this position along with three established super powers of college hockey is in itself a feat.
“It’s great, it’s awesome, it’s unbelievable right now,” coach Guy Gadowsky said. “To be in the conversation right now is unbelievable. Our coaches are talking about it, (and) it’s amazing.”
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The task may be daunting, but Penn State has a path to stun the hockey world yet again with a visit to No. 15 Minnesota (19-12-3, 10-5-3) for 8 p.m. games Friday and Saturday.
Michigan State enters the final weekend leading the conference by one point over the Golden Gophers and Michigan and three points over Penn State. The Spartans and Wolverines meet in another series to help decide a conference battle that has been tight from end to end, and the Nittany Lions can finish anywhere from first to fourth depending on how the weekend shakes out.
“It’s nice to be in the conversation, it really is,” Gadowsky said. “Trust me, we don’t have to mention that for the team to understand that. They know that. We just try to keep focused on what we have to do.”
Gadowsky said the coaching staff has purposely not brought up the topic with their team members, but when they are gathered in their offices, they can’t hide how thrilled they are.
But even if the coaches are trying to tamp down the excitement, the young men all know what is at stake.
“It’s pretty cool,” junior forward Eric Scheid said.” Obviously we’re just focusing on Friday night, getting those three points, but it’s hard not to take a look, to have a chance to win the whole league. Coming down to the last weekend, it’s pretty much the position we wanted to put ourselves in and we’re happy to have the chance to do it.”
Putting together a scouting report will be pretty easy — the teams just met three weeks ago at Pegula Ice Arena, splitting the series 2-1 for the Gophers and 4-3 in overtime for the Lions.
Pulling off a pair of upsets will be a pretty tall task. The Gophers are 12-3-1 at home this season, lost just one Big Ten home game this season and has not been swept at home in four years.
“We have a good understanding of what we’re getting ourselves into,” Scheid said. “It’s going to be a different series than it was at home.”
While most of the Nittany Lions played at Mariucci Arena last season, few have as much familiarity with the Olympic-size ice which is longer and wider than Pegula Ice Arena, than Scheid. He grew up in the Minneapolis suburb of Blaine and played high school state playoff and tournament games at the rink.
The team’s fastest skater, who is exceptionally creative with the stick, is looking forward to the extra space.
“This is my favorite rink to play at,” said Scheid, figuring he will see a personal rooting section of 20-30 people this weekend. “The open ice, a little bit more time with the puck, it fits into my game really well.”
But the Gophers are an incredibly dangerous team, with talent on pretty much every line. The teams essentially match each other offensively — Penn State scores 3.41 goals per game, Minnesota averages 3.47 per outing — but with the nation’s No. 1 power play unit, the Gophers can make a team pay for its mistakes.
The Nittany Lions are flying high right now, coming off the thrill of a sweep of Michigan last weekend, and that supplies a little extra help for Friday and Saturday.
“Any time you can sweep,” Scheid said, “no matter whether it’s home or what, against Michigan, a team of that caliber, really gives you some confidence.”
The one person on the Nittany Lion roster more familiar with Mariucci Arena than Scheid is Max Gardiner, who played for Minnesota as a freshman. Now, he gets to end the final regular season of his college career in the same place his career started, and with plenty on the line.
“They’ve got a lot of skill, a lot of speed,” Gardiner said. “It’s going be tough, but we’ve got no doubts in our abilities. If we can play our game we’ll give ourselves a chance to win a couple games.”