The Gopher hockey team comes into the weekend ranked #7 in the nation in both the polls and the pairwise, and can make a statement as they host the #4/6 Penn State Nittany Lions. Penn State is ranked fifth in the pairwise and this weekend can go a long way for both squads in locking up their NCAA Tournament berths. Chris Taylor of Black Shoe Diaries provided his take on the Nittany Lions yesterday.
The Gophers will return to Big Ten play after finishing their non-conference portion of the season last weekend at the North Star College Cup in St Paul. The Gophers lost to then #2 UMD 3-2 in Friday night’s semi-final and then came back to defeat Bemidji State 4-0 in the third place game Saturday afternoon. Minnesota now starts a string of twelve Big Ten conference games in six weeks—a gauntlet Minnesota will need to successfully deal with if they want to win their NCAA record sixth consecutive regular season conference championship.
Meanwhile the Nittany Lions are coming off of their third loss in a row since being ranked #1 in the nation for the first time in program history. Penn State lost and lost in a shootout to Ohio State at home two weekends ago, and then last weekend were upset by Princeton in Philadelphia. Obviously they will be looking to end their recent slide against the Gophers, and would love nothing more than to take at least three points at Mariucci Arena. It won’t be easy for the Nittany Lions though as they are just 1-5 all time at Mariucci and have been outscored 25-10.
The Gophers will need to score goals. Penn State is #2 in the nation averaging 4.41 goals per game. Minnesota is fifth in the nation at 3.71 goals per game, so they do have the ability to match the Nittany Lions goal for goal. Penn State has been a bit more stingy at scoring when playing quality opponents however. Ohio State held PSU to just three goals in each of their games two weeks ago. Minnesota will once again look to rely on the usual suspects to put the puck in the net. Tyler Sheehy continues to lead the Big Ten in scoring with 33 points, Justin Kloos has scored a point in nine of his last ten games, and Brent Gates, Jr. has five points in his last four games.
Meanwhile on the defensive side of the ice, the Gophers will look for “Good Schierhorn” to show up. Eric Schierhorn has been very much up and down this season for the Gophers, but played well last weekend giving up just three goals to UMD Friday night and recording his fourth shutout of the season over Bemidji State Saturday. If Schierhorn has an off night this weekend, it will be very tough for the Gophers to keep up. That is unless Penn State freshman goalie Peyton Jones has an off-night as well. Jones is one of the better stories of the year coming in as a true freshman and starting the season 14-1-1. Unfortunately for him and the Nittany Lions, he has not looked good in the last three games giving up six and five goals in his last two games. Minnesota will look to keep his on his heels and put up another big number.
This series will have ramifications not only in the Big Ten standings but the pairwise as well. Minnesota is tied with Wisconsin on top of the Big Ten with 18 points each. Penn State is only two points behind with 16. Whomever wins this series will definitely have the upper hand on their opponent at the halfway point of the conference schedule. But whomever takes this round won’t have much time to enjoy it as the two teams will meet again at Penn State in two weeks.
This series will also impact the Pairwise standings. Minnesota is currently #7 and Penn State is currently #5. Thanks to the great work done by Jim Dahl at www.collegehockeyranked.com we know that for the Gophers to make the NCAA tournament as an at large team, they probably need to go at least 6-6 in the rest of the Big Ten schedule. The results are largely the same for Penn State, but it appears they can afford one more loss and still get an at large berth at 5-7 down the stretch. Now these numbers do not take into account anything that happens in the conference tournaments, so that can throw anything into chaos, but they are good guidelines as the season moves slowly to a close.
Either way we should have a good series between two ranked teams to keep us interested. Its really all you can ask for in February.
HOW TO WATCH
#4/6 Penn State Nittany Lions vs #7 Minnesota Golden Gophers
Where: Mariucci Arena, Minneapolis, Minnesota
When: 7:00 Friday and Saturday
TV: Fox Sports North + (Friday), Big Ten Network (Saturday)
Radio: 1500 ESPN