No matter the sport, the schedule scenarios have been pretty consistent for Penn State for better than two decades: Play the bulk, if not all, of the nonconference games before meeting any Big Ten teams.
It allows Nittany Lion programs to be well-prepared before contests that affect conference standings.
The story is different for the Nittany Lion hockey team this season — and everyone else in the conference.
It may be the second weekend of the season, but No. 11 Penn State (1-1) visits No. 7 Minnesota (1-1) at 3M Arena at Mariucci, dropping the puck at 8 p.m. Friday and 4 p.m. Sunday. While they may try to approach every game the same, and October games will not have the same quality as those in February, there is no denying a conference game is special.
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“It’s a little bit more hyped up, for sure, and people are a little bit more amped up,” junior defenseman Kevin Kerr said. “As a team we go out there with the same objectives every game.”
The Nittany Lions and Golden Gophers are not alone in the alterations. Wisconsin and Ohio State met last weekend, and Michigan visits Pegula Ice Arena at the end of this month. Before last Friday, no Big Ten hockey games had ever been played in October.
One of the reasons schedules are off-kilter is the addition of Notre Dame this season. The conference voted to add the Fighting Irish as an associate member for hockey about a year ago to make a seven-team hockey conference. Combining the odd number with nonconference schedules set ahead, changes had to be made.
Although it may be unusual for the Big Ten, other conferences may ask, what’s the big deal? Leagues such as Hockey East, Atlantic Hockey, the ECAC and WCHA typically have conference games in October.
Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky is looking at the silver lining: Later nonconference games could help the Big Ten, if they win, to add to their NCAA tournament resumes.
However, it also means conference standings are impacted by games in which teams are not playing at their peak. The first official team practices were Sept. 30, and coaches spend many of the early weeks implementing concepts and systems piece by piece. The special teams, like power plays and penalty kills, have not had much work yet, and everyone is still sorting out the best combinations for forward lines and defensive pairings. The situation is the same for both teams, however.
“There might be some uncharacteristic mistakes in Big Ten games this early that you normally wouldn’t see,” Gadowsky said. “It’s the same for both teams.”
He also has said frequently over the years his team doesn’t worry much about scouting opponents in the early weeks, instead focusing internally, but that was altered this week. They may not focus on a lot of details, but the systems the Gophers use, in general, will be relatively unchanged.
“That’s one of the advantages of playing the Big Ten schedule later: you really can just work on yourself,” Gadowsky said.
It means the Nittany Lions may not be as prepared for the Gophers as when the teams close the regular season against each other in late February at Penn State. The Lions also perhaps may not be as ready to deal with Minnesota forward Casey Mittelstadt, a first-round draft pick, eighth overall, by the Buffalo Sabres and one nation’s top freshmen this season. Last weekend he started on the same line as Rem Pitlick, who netted 14 goals last season but seven of them in just five games against the Lions.
But a Big Ten game, whenever it is played, no matter the playing field, always brings excitement.
“When you play a Big Ten school, it’s a different feel,” Gadowsky said. “It’s hard to really put a word on it. The intensity of it is just ratcheted up. Everything is just a little more crystal clear.”
Men’s college hockey
Who: No. 11 Penn State at No. 7 Minnesota
When: 8 p.m. Friday, 4 p.m. Sunday
Where: 3M Arena at Mariucci
Radio: WAPY 103.1 FM
Leading scorers (2016-17 stats): PSU—Denis Smirnov (19 goals, 28 assists), Andrew Sturtz (22 G, 15 A), Nate Sucese (17 G, 19 A), Chase Berger (13 G, 23 A); UM—Tyler Sheehy (20 G, 33 A), Leon Bristedt (12 G, 21 A), Rem Pitlick (14 G, 18 A)