There are just two games left on the Penn State men’s ice hockey team’s schedule for the season, and they are the two biggest games of the entire year.
“You can consider this our playoffs,” was the assessment of goalie Matthew Skoff, who has been stellar in the net the last few weeks of the Nittany Lion season.
Penn State visits Wisconsin on Sunday and Monday to close out the inaugural season for the program, and these games will wrap up nearly everything they will need as a program.
The two-game series will be against a Big Ten opponent, in front of more than 10,000 fans who will be decidedly against the Nittany Lions, against a program loaded with hockey history and an opponent nationally ranked.
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With all the team has worked on and learned since the season began in early October, and no postseason awaiting them, it is basically the final exam.
“It’s a great opportunity for us,” head coach Guy Gadowsky said. “This is one of those date-circled games. A lot of guys have been looking forward to this for a long time.”
The puck drops at 8 p.m. Sunday and at 8:30 p.m. Monday, with the second contest live on the Big Ten Network.
Especially for the seniors who worked their way from the club program up to this first varsity season, it’s a nice reward.
“Going to Wisconsin’s going to be an awesome experience,” senior forward George Saad said. “A great way to end my career for my last two games. Hopefully we can pull out two wins as well.”
One of the tough parts of the experience will be the opposing crowd. The Badgers are averaging better than 10,000 fans at the Kohl Center, and while Penn State has had several large attendance numbers for games this season, very few have been rooting against them. Only two games at Michigan State a few weeks ago, with 5-6,000 on hand, and 10,556 mostly RIT fans in Rochester, N.Y., in October had crowds of more than 2,000 who were anti-Penn State.
“I think we’ll be able to handle it well,” Saad said. “It’s not an easy place to play, but we’ve been working on the mental toughness part of our game for a while now, so I think we’re grasping that. We’re going to handle it the best we can. That first goal’s going to be huge, so if we can get that and quiet them down it’ll be good for us.”
“That place is probably going to be rockin’ – I hope it is,” Skoff said. “It makes the game that much more fun.”
With so many neutral site games, like in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Wilkes-Barre and Hershey that have still brought out the alumni, the Nittany Lions will be facing a tough atmosphere.
“We’ve been very spoiled,” Gadowsky said. “This is something that I will look forward to because we’ve been so spoiled. They’ve been so awesome. Maybe we deserve to see what it’s like to play against a crowd like we’re used to.”
They will be facing just their second ranked opponent of the season. Union was No. 8 when Penn State visited in November and is currently 20th. The Badgers, who are No. 18, did not have the best of starts to the season, and are just 2-2-2 in their last six games, but are 10-2-5 since late November. They are coming off a weekend split with No. 2 Minnesota, losing at home but winning 3-2 in front of 52,051 at Chicago’s Soldier Field last Sunday.
One of the Lions most looking forward to the trip is sophomore forward Max Gardiner, who spent a year with the Golden Gophers and is more familiar with the rink than the rest of the team.
“It’s an awesome environment, a really fun place to play,” Gardiner said. “I think everyone’s been looking forward to this weekend, and I know me, personally, I’m really looking forward to it. It will be fun to get back in that arena and play Wisconsin.”
With the weekend being the finale for the Nittany Lions, it will certainly be a special way to end the historical first season, and Saad plans to emphasize how special it will be for the seniors when they get to Madison.
“I want to get them pumped up,” Saad said. “It’s my last games, so I know they’re going to come out playing strong, not only for the team but the seniors as well. I’ll try to get them pumped up as much as I can for the game.”
One adjustment the Nittany Lions will have to make is playing on a different size ice surface. It will mark the only time all season they will not be playing on a standard sheet of 200 feet-by-85 feet. The Kohl Center’s sheet is 200-by-97, or just three feet narrower than an Olympic-size rink.
“Everyone on our team’s played on (that size rink) before,” Gardiner said. “It shouldn’t be that big of an adjustment. Yeah, a little more space to make plays. We’ll definitely have to jump on pucks a little bit quicker.”
The center of the ice will be the same, with the extra space between the circles and the boards, but it will mean more surface for the defense to cover and a little extra room for the fastest skaters on the ice.
Gadowsky hopes his team doesn’t think too much about the different dimensions.
“If you try to come in with a different mindset, that can be a negative,” said Gadowsky, who has coached a number of games on the larger surface including his home rink when he was leading Alaska. “There are certain keys. You play off the dots instead of off the boards, but other than that we’re going to play our game.”
Healing in time
Gadowsky was hopeful Tuesday defenseman Nate Jensen would be medically cleared to play this weekend after missing the last few weeks with an injury. His return would give Penn State a full complement of six defensemen on the bigger ice. The Lions played with five last Saturday against Oklahoma and four on Friday night with Joseph Lordo out.
Check the rankings
While The Nittany Lions knew before the season there likely would not be a postseason, it doesn’t hurt to see where they stand at this point in the year. The Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) which the NCAA uses to help decide on who gets into the tournament, has been out the last few weeks, with Penn State 45th in this week’s poll of 59 Division I programs.
They have faced five programs in the top 30 – No. 15 Union, No. 21 Wisconsin, No. 24 Ohio State, No. 27 Holy Cross and No. 28 Robert Morris – and also have wins against five of the bottom seven – No. 53 Michigan State, No. 54 American International, No. 57 Army, No. 58 Alabama-Huntsville and No. 59 Sacred Heart.
Following Monday’s game, the season is officially over, but the NCAA allows teams to continue practicing through the Frozen Four weekend in April. So while most teams still have two more weeks left in the regular season and then will begin their conference tournaments, Penn State will be working hard in the Greenberg Ice Pavilion.
“We’re going to ramp-up off-ice training,” Gadowsky said. “ We’ll still be using it to work on skills on the ice as well.”
While there may not longer be any opposition, the Nittany Lions will have plenty to work on as they prepare for the Big Ten schedule next season.
“We’re still working on our foundation on the ice,” Gadowsky said. “Things that are real important to how (we play) the style that we play. We’re trying to work on individual skills and how they will equate or transfer to how we play the game.”