The Penn State men’s hockey team is seeking to make a statement.
This is the weekend to do it, against a team that just made a big one of its own.
The Nittany Lions host No. 17 Minnesota for two major Big Ten games this weekend, meeting at 6:30 p.m. Friday and 5 p.m. Saturday at Pegula Ice Arena, as both seek to shake up a logjam atop the conference standings.
How close is the Big Ten race? The Golden Gophers (16-9-3, 7-2-3) and Michigan are tied at the top with 24 points each. Penn State (15-9-4, 7-4-1) and Michigan State are two points back in a tie for third.
The Nittany Lions will spend three of the next four weekends facing either the Gophers — also ending the regular season with two games in Minneapolis — or the Wolverines.
“You can look at it as a positive because you’re going to be facing your toughest tests, arguably, going into the Big Ten Tournament,” coach Guy Gadowsky said. “I think that’s the way you want it.”
The Nittany Lions had been impressing many people since the start of January as it rolled through the schedule until a trip to Michigan State last weekend led to 3-0 and 3-2 losses.
The first loss was especially troubling, given how much Penn State was outworked by the Spartans and the Lions failed to generate many offensive chances in posting one of their lowest shot totals of the season.
“We did not play our game and we deserved to lose that,” Gadowsky said.
The second loss was much tighter, with the team beaten by a hot goaltender and a high number of penalties.
It was not the best of trips away from the friendly confines at the corner of University Drive and Curtin Road.
“Any time you’re away it’s a bit tough to get going,” junior forward Curtis Loik said. “It’s something we need to work on, because the last stretch here we have (two) more weekends where we’re away. It doesn’t matter whether we’re home or away we have to prepare for those games.”
How comfortable are the Nittany Lions at home? No Division I team in the nation has fewer regulation home losses, and only No. 1 Minnesota State has a better win percentage (12-2, .857) than Penn State (.821) with its 10-1-3 home record.
But even as the most important games of the season loom, against a ranked team rising back up the polls, Gadowsky’s mantra continues to be unwavering.
“It’s still all about us,” Gadowsky said, “whether we’re playing Bellefonte High School or the Montreal Canadiens, we’re going to try to play our best game.”
They will have to do it against a team that has won four straight and is unbeaten in its last six. The Gophers also are coming off a stunning weekend, sweeping No. 15 Michigan, which had been demolishing opponents since the start of the new year with the nation’s highest-scoring offense, at home 6-2 and 2-0.
“Last weekend will tell you all you need to know,” Gadowsky said. “The team that’s scoring more goals than anybody in the NCAA, they held to two goals on the weekend. They held them to 49 shots. Defensively they had a tremendous weekend.”
Minnesota, which returned most of its Frozen Four team from a year ago, began as the preseason No. 1 team in the nation, but struggled through the fall and dropped out of the top 20 until the wins over the Wolverines.
The Gophers have the No. 1 power play unit in Division I, converting 28.7 percent of their chances. Penn State is 13 th in the nation at 21.5 percent. The deep and talented roster also has the No. 6 offense, scoring 3.57 goals per game, led by senior Kyle Rau, who scored four goals last weekend. Penn State is 10 th at 3.39 goals per game.
Backing them up is junior All-American Adam Wilcox, the Big Ten’s top goalie last season, who had his fourth shutout of the season last Saturday and the 11 th of his career.
“Minnesota’s a very good team,” Loik said. “They’re a top contender for Big Ten, even NCAA, so it’s going to be a good, tough weekend.”
The Nittany Lions certainly will have their hands full, but if there is any time for them to prove they belong among the nation’s top teams, this is the weekend to say something.
“You’re going to see high-quality hockey, you’re also going to see pretty hockey,” Gadowsky said. “You’re going to see fast hockey.”