Penn State Hockey

No. 18 Penn State hockey hoping to shore up defense for weekend tilt vs. Minnesota

Penn State and Minnesota, seen here during last season’s tilt, will face off this weekend at 6 p.m. Friday and again 6 p.m. Saturday at Pegula Ice Arena.
Penn State and Minnesota, seen here during last season’s tilt, will face off this weekend at 6 p.m. Friday and again 6 p.m. Saturday at Pegula Ice Arena.

With a healthy-as-possible roster and some coaching adjustments and message sending complete, it’s basically put up or shut up time for the Penn State men’s hockey team, which plays two games at home against Minnesota this weekend.

As it has the entire season, Penn State boasts the nation’s best scoring offense (4.54 goals per game) — but the team’s scoring defense (3.77) is among the worst in Division I.

With eight games remaining in the regular season, the No. 18 Nittany Lions sit at the bottom of the conference standings. Still, even the conference tournament remains a secondary thought compared to simply improving in the defensive zone and finding some balance.

After a week off, which allowed several players with bumps and bruises to heal, Penn State is as healthy as any other team at this point of the season. Yes, the Nittany Lions are without Aarne Talvitie, who sustained a season-ending injury in early January at the World Junior Championships, but they have bigger problems.

“I’m surprised we’re not better in the defensive zone,” said coach Guy Gadowsky, who shouldered the blame for the team’s struggles. “It could be because we’re spending a little more time doing it.”

A focus on stopping the initial offensive rush by opponents has worked, but it’s led to some longer defensive efforts as opponents hold the puck and explore options. Gadowsky has altered the defensive emphasis recently, acknowledging it’s impossible to always do everything right.

“It’s our staff’s job to make sure we’re improving as much as we can,” he said. “You can’t relax in any area. That’s enough to put you on the wrong side of things.”

Twenty-five goals in five games prompted Gadowsky to start freshman Oksar Autio instead of Peyton Jones in goal Jan. 24 when the team played at Michigan. The coach said it was not a message to Jones but instead “a message to the team.” After a 5-1 loss, Jones returned two nights later when Penn State beat Michigan, 5-2, at Madison Square Garden.

Now Penn State hopes to find a way to maintain whatever momentum it created two weeks ago. That will require the message transferring to reality. “We just need to play our game,” defenseman Evan Bell said. “A lot of it is communication. We have defensive responsibilities. We know them. We just have to make sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing.”

Minnesota’s overall record looks lackluster, but the Golden Gophers sit atop a tightly bunched group of teams off the pace set by conference leader Ohio State. Minnesota’s power play and penalty kill lead the conference. Plus, junior forward Rem Pitlick, a Hobey Baker Award nominee, has four consecutive multi-point efforts and has scored points in 17 of his last 18 games.

Expect Minnesota to be additionally motivated by its efforts last season at Pegula Ice Arena, when the team lost four in a row — two to conclude the regular season and two in the playoffs — before raucous crowds in Hockey Valley.

No. 18 Penn State (14-10-2, 6-9-1 Big Ten) vs. Minnesota (11-12-4, 8-7-3 Big Ten)

Weekend Series: 6 p.m. Friday; 6 p.m. Saturday

Radio/TV: Both games on 103.1 FM, and televised by Big Ten Network.

Notable: The teams split their first series of the season in Minnesota. … Minnesota sits second in the Big Ten standings with 27 points. Penn State is last with 20. … Minnesota has the conference’s best power play, converting 27 percent of its opportunities.