Minnesota and Penn State will meet this weekend for the seventh series in the school’s history. Arguably none have been more important than this weekends series between the #6 Nittany Lions and the #7 Gophers. With both Big Ten points and pairwise position on the line, this weekend will go along way towards determining the position for these schools at the end of the season. We reached out to Chris Taylor who writes for Black Shoe Diaries —Penn State’s SB Nation Site to give us a bit more information on Penn State.
TDG: Penn State in year five is competing nationally at a faster rate then even I think they would imagine. From a PSU fan's standpoint how are the team and the fans handling the added pressure?
CT: When Penn State first joined Division 1 hockey five years ago, most of the fanbase was happy to watch hockey but not very knowledgeable when it came to understanding the game. In the past few years that has changed to the point that the sell-out crowds inside the Pegula Ice Arena cheer just as a player is about to ice a puck to kill penalty time, or when a player blocks an otherwise open, dangerous shot. The fans now notice the little things. That being said, this is the first time the PSU hockey fanbase has paid much attention to the PairWise Rankings, or even brushed up on the process of what it takes to make the NCAA tournament. The program has never made the NCAA tournament and nobody was expecting it to this season.
Three seasons ago the team had its first above .500 finish at 18-15-4. Heading into the season no fans or media were predicting such a tremendous finish for the 3rd year program. Last year the team finished 21-13-4 and once again everyone involved was pleasantly surprised. This season is much of the same. At 16-4-2 the team has the highest winning percentage in the country and is No. 5 in the PairWise. No one would have predicted this level of success so it doesn't seem like there is much pressure even for the players. The pressure is during each individual game, not for the entirety of the season, at this point.
TDG: PSU got to #1 nationally for the first time in program history two weeks ago and then promptly lost two of their last three games, and lost in a shootout in the other. Do you think they just got complacent, or did they just run into some tough teams?
CT: It was a little of both and then some. There have been times that the team was complacent, such as the third period versus Princeton. PSU had the game all but won, ahead by two goals in the final minutes. The weekend prior it would be fair to say that Ohio State was playing great hockey, and that they match up very well against PSU's style. OSU is able to use their speed to make Penn State pay for over-committing as they do sometimes in the offensive zone. It's been an issue for the Lions for the past few years when they skate against the Buckeyes.
But the main takeaway for the OSU series was that the first game took a great deal out of the Lions. It was a huge stage for the team, playing a conference rival, and high-ranked team, at home while being voted No. 1 for the first time in program history a few days before. The first period of the first game was the best the team has played all season, arguably the best 20 minutes in program history. However, as hockey can be unkind at times, the score was just 1-0 PSU heading into the second period. PSU could have easily led 5-0 and cruised to an easy victory. Shots off the post, missed empty net when pucks wouldn't stay down on the ice, and a few amazing saves by Christian Frey, all had the game much tighter than it had been played. PSU came out for the second period flat. It appeared that they were drained of their momentum, that they gave too much in the first period. The team is still young, led by underclassmen, it happens and they have to learn how to pace themselves. That game went on to a shootout, six round, after PSU scored and then was matched to continue the shootout. Then PSU lost. It felt like a loss, not a tie. It felt more like two losses. It hurt badly, and it had to have been tough for the team to come out the next night. The next night PSU played a little tight, as though they were aware of what OSU was trying to do, force them into creating odd-man breaks, so as a result the Lions were not able to run their breakouts smoothly and the offense was reduced to one shot per trip with no serious chances at a rebound. It is something that the team will have to work on, since it will play OSU at least four times each year. One side note should be included. Following the second game, an OSU win, a player from the Buckeye bench threw a broom onto the ice as the PSU players and fans were still reeling from the loss. Technically it was a tie and a win for the Buckeyes, but the point was taken and their action noted. To be continued.
TDG: It seemed coming into the season that goaltending might be a question for the Nittany Lions with the graduation/leaving early of their top two from a season ago. How big has Peyton Jones been in net this season for PSU?
CT: Jones was expected to be the best goalie that ever put on a PSU uniform when he laced on his skates for the first time. It was not expected that he would be the starting goalie this season, however. Coach Gadowsky has been around college hockey for two decades so he understands the possibilities of players leaving early and so on, but he was taken by surprise when Eamon McAdam left last season to pursue his NHL dreams with the New York Islanders. During the off-season, on three separate occasions Gadowsky mentioned that he expected to have McAdam this season. It accelerated the time-table for Jones, making him the starting goalie from day one, rather than having him learn behind a senior who was essentially in his contract year. McAdam's initial offer from the Islanders was set to expire, making him eligible for the draft following this season had he returned to PSU.
The fact that Jones has been able to play so well has made the team what it is at this point. While PSU is one of the top scoring and defending teams in the nation, Jones has made it possible for the Lions to overcome some of the mistakes that it has made while winning games. There was a stretch until recently that the team had the best penalty kill in the country. That can't happen without great goalie play. Recently Jones has showed a little more vulnerability than he did earlier in the season. That can be attributed to the learning curve of a first-year player. In a perfect situation, he would not be learning all of the lessons one must learn to be a good NCAA goalie on the ice, facing live action. Fortunately the team has a serviceable backup goalie in Chris Funkey, so Gadowsky is not forced to run Jones out there if he is tired or needs to sit down for whatever reason.
TDG: Penn State is coming into the weekend ranked #2 in the nation in both scoring offense and scoring defense. Which has been more important for PSU this season and has the greater likelihood of remaining near the top as the schedule gets tougher in the near future?
CT: I would have to say at this point the defense has been more important to the team. Moving forward I would expect that the offense will continue to maintain a high standing more so than the defense. Not that I expect the defense to struggle, just that the offense is so strong and there are so many weapons. The team just added Brett Murray, a Buffalo Sabres draft pick and high-scoring forward for the second semester of the season. He has yet to add to the scoring punch that the team already has. Add that to the high-shooting, fast style of play that Gadowsky's team employs, and it is easy to believe that PSU will finish in the top 3 in scoring. If the team can stay near the top on the defensive side, it should remain where it currently is in the PairWise, No. 5.
TDG: Who on the offensive end does Minnesota need to watch out for this weekend?
CT: Denis Smirnov, Andrew Sturtz, Trevor Hamilton and Vince Pedrie. The rest of the team is dangerous as a unit, but those three players are the type that can make something happen on their own. Pedrie is a defensive player but he has an offensive mind, leading the team with 107 shots and contributing 19 points from the blue-line. Hamilton is the same type of player, a defenseman that can score. He has 20 points and also likes to lay down hits if any Gophers get caught skating with their heads down. Smirnov has been in the top-10 in scoring nationally for much of the year. Sturtz scored 18 goals as a freshman and has 17 already this year. Sturtz is the scariest offensive player of the group, but you really shouldn't do much worrying about him. If he does one of his freakish moves and finishes, there's nothing really anyone can do to stop it. Smirnov typically gets his points and goals within the flow of the offense. He is more of a distributor than a scorer at this point, with 11 goals and 18 assists, but 11 goals is nothing to sneeze at. Both Sturtz and Smirnov were nominated for the Hobey Baker Award, and would have been much higher prospects were they just a couple of inches taller and 20 pounds heavier. Their bodies will make them have to work hard to get a shot at the NHL level, but there is no problem at the NCAA level. So their lack of notoriety in terms of not having yet been drafted, which should change for each this year, or not being a blue-chip NHL prospect as some other Big Ten players are, has kept their play on the ice from being noticed until very recently outside of Hockey Valley.
TDG: What does Penn State need to improve upon to get off of its recent slide and have success in their next 6 games against teams tied for the top of the Big Ten standings (Minnesota x4 Wisconsin x2)?
CT: The team is still very young, and is experiencing many challenges as a unit for the first time. It needs to improve as much as it can in every aspect. Goalie Peyton Jones needs to keep his focus, as he has allowed some easy goals lately that he stopped earlier in the year. The offense needs to take it to Minnesota and Wisconsin. While both the Gophers and Badgers are extremely talented teams, with better pedigrees than many PSU players, the overall offensive thrust of the Lions is greater than those two teams. That's not a knock on either team, they are great programs. It's just that PSU is built around its offense. The defensive success that the team has had this season has come a couple of years earlier than planned. It was thought that the team would, at best, be a one-trick pony that beat teams with offense at this point in the program's development. This is the first season the team has Division 1-caliber players on the blue line, so few people were expecting the success the team has had.
TDG: Predictions for this weekend?
CT: Anything other than a sweep would be great from a PSU perspective. Penn State has only won once in Mariucci Arena. It would be nice if all of the Gopher fans would maybe choose something else to do this weekend rather than attend the games. There has to be something better to do in Minnesota in February than watch hockey, right? So maybe no one will show up to the games, PSU will be energized by the silence inside the stadium, and won't be thrown off at all by the large sheet of ice, and will skate to a satisfying 1-0-1 series win. What's more likely is that the Gopher fanbase will support its team, the most successful team since the creation of the Big Ten conference, and it will make it very difficult on the Lions. I don't normally predict outcomes of games, but if I had to I would say it feels like Minnesota is going to sweep the Lions. I hope I'm wrong.
Thanks to Chris for his answers. We will have a series preview from the Minnesota perspective on Friday.