As the Nittany Lions skate onto the ice Friday night, the future is theirs to determine.
It’s hard to believe that a men’s college hockey program in just its third year of existence is poised to make a run at the postseason, but that is where Penn State stands.
Friday night opens a stretch of 12 games over the next six weekends, all in the Big Ten and all allowing the possibility that the Nittany Lions could make a season that has already been pretty stellar even more memorable.
Penn State (13-7-4, 5-2-1 Big Ten) hosts struggling Wisconsin (2-16-4, 0-6-2) at 6:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday in its return to conference play.
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The Nittany Lions are tied with Michigan State for second place in the conference with 16 points, five points behind Michigan, which has been one of the hottest teams in the country the last couple months.
The team members — currently riding a six-game unbeaten streak — know what is at stake.
“Obviously, every game during the season is important,” junior forward Eric Scheid said. “But you want to be playing your best hockey going into the Big Ten Tournament. We’re focusing on trying to get these wins and finishing well, but the most important thing is playing our best hockey going into March.”
At the end of last season, and the start of this one back in October, talking about making the NCAA Tournament probably seemed rather far fetched to Penn State fans, and onlookers from beyond State College.
But the team has put so much together, and coach Guy Gadowsky, even though he is loath to judge the success of the season by wins and losses, admits the record shows his team is reaching most of the goals they hoped to be hitting by this point in the season.
“We felt good about our performance,” Gadowsky said, “but I think the results validate that.”
The team got a bonus day off last week with just one game, but now they know the pressure will be on until the final regular-season game is played March 14.
“We know that it’s Friday-Saturday ‘til the end,” Gadowsky said. “This is the ‘Dog days,’ this is ‘down the stretch.’ It’s fun because I think everybody’s pretty similar. It’s fun. This is hockey. This is hockey that you grew up watching.”
If Penn State can keep winning, as outlandish as the thought might have been in October, the Lions can realistically be a No. 2 seed for the Big Ten Tournament, which would mean a first-round bye, and have them very much in contention for the NCAA’s 16-team bracket.
But for a team that has had trouble maintaining focus for 60 minutes on consecutive nights, especially showing trouble in the second periods of their Friday games during weekend series, it will take some intense focus to complete the dream.
“We start well but we seem to lose focus once we start to play well,” Scheid said. “We kind of think that’s going to come easy. I think for us it’s a matter of staying focused for the whole 60 minutes.”
A look at the Badgers’ record, and at what happened in Madison in early December when Penn State earned its first Big Ten weekend sweep, and it would be natural to think two wins would come easy again. The Badgers have a stellar goaltender in Joel Rumpel, but are largely dependent on freshmen and have ridden quite the roller coaster this season.
But Wisconsin is also coming off a shootout win over Minnesota last weekend, and has been much more competitive with opponents in the last few weeks.
“They’re a much different team this week than they were in October and back when we played them in December,” Gadowsky said. “I think you’re going to see a much different team and I hope we’re a lot better team as well.”
Gadowsky pointed out his team is still lacking in some places, including on the penalty kill. The team also does not have a No. 1 goaltender, with all three on the roster taking starting turns, and that also is a troubling point.
However, the offense is among the nation’s best, it put more shots on net than any other Division I team in the country, and has enough talent and parts in place to make anything possible.
The road is laid out for the next six weeks, and who knows what lies beyond.
This year for the Nittany Lions, anything is possible.
“All these games matter toward making the tournament at the end of the year,” junior forward Casey Bailey said. “That’s our main focus.”