Puck drops on Big Ten season for MSU hockey with early test against Penn State
MSU hockey (4-7-2) hasn't made it easy on itself thus far this season. With a front loaded schedule that included seven of its 13 games against ranked opponents, the Spartans have been walking on eggshells when it comes to confidence.
On the flip side of the confidence level? Penn State. The Nittany Lions (8-2-3) enter the opening weekend series of Big Ten play at Penn State’s Pegula Ice Arena riding a six-game unbeaten streak going 4-0-2 in that span. Penn State’s fast start to the year isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, though.
Penn State’s toughest contests have come against Notre Dame and St. Lawrence. The Nittany Lions split the series with Notre Dame but tied with St. Lawrence in game one and lost game two.
It’s tough to gauge Penn State’s successes, but it’s not all a facade. Penn State ranks sixth in the nation in goals with 54 and is first in the nation in shots on goal per game with 45. The high-powered offense come on the heels of Chase Berger, Andrew Sturtz, and Dylan Richard with nine, six, and seven goals, respectively.
“We know what to expect from Penn State,” head coach Tom Anastos said. “They’re a hardworking team, especially at home. They’re tough to play against, they shoot the puck from everywhere, they crash the net hard, they defend in large numbers so they make it a small ice game to play in.”
Another strong suit for the Nittany Lions has been the nation’s No. 2 power play. The Daily Collegian’s Penn State hockey reporter John Petrolias expanded on what makes Penn State’s power play hard to stop.
“This is where Penn State's shooters bring home the bacon,” Petrolias said via email. “Guys like Pedrie, 6-foot-6 Zach Saar and Dylan Richard (who has a Big Ten-leading five power play goals) have wicked shots that really make a difference.”
Petrolias also added that the chemistry on the power play lines replete with a focus on quick puck movement and quick shots has been a catalyst for Penn State’s man advantage.
MSU will have to keep up its staunch penalty kill, ranked No. 9 in the nation, if it is to win. Beyond the special teams, MSU will need to play a full 60 minutes to thwart Penn State. Slow starts and inability to close out games have hampered the Spartans.
Penn State’s weaker schedule hasn’t exposed many of its weaknesses but one key to MSU winning the game may lie in physicality.
“The only game they truly got outplayed in was their second against St. Lawrence, who did a fantastic job ramping up their physical play and challenging Penn State to a real physical battle all over the ice, especially on the boards,” Petrolias said.
If MSU can be physical with Penn State and score when given opportunities, the Spartans might escape Happy Valley with a couple wins.
The Spartans might have history on their side, as they are 6-2-2 all time against Penn State. However, the Spartans are only 1-1-2 at Pegula Ice Arena.
The opening of Big Ten play was the turning point for the Spartans last season, going 11-7-2 in the conference and finishing second in the Big Ten. It's a clean slate now for the Spartans and has them optimistic about the road ahead.
“It’s definitely the best time of year,” senior forward Mackenzie MacEachern said. “The competition we play, the places we go, I’m definitely excited after the schedule we had I think it’s going to prepare us really well for this weekend.”
Big Ten play also brings a twinge of excitement, fresh with new challenges and venues as well.
“Obviously, it's a lot of fun,” senior captain Michael Ferrantino said. “We get to go into fun buildings and play in front of big crowds, it’s loud it’s obnoxious and ya know it’s a whole lot of fun.”
But if MSU is to turn it around, they’ll need to play a complete game in both contests with Penn State this weekend. Anastos has stressed confidence and building off the positives of MSU’s early season adversity.
A strong effort from puck drop to final horn and the Spartans may steal one or two from Penn State. Lackadaisical starts or too many costly mistakes with the puck while leading in games, will doom the Spartans.