Moving up to No. 19 in the USCHO.com poll this week after splitting a road series with Wisconsin last weekend, the Michigan State hockey team (12-11-1) returns home to host No. 9 Penn State (16-7-1) this weekend in a top-20 matchup at Munn Ice Arena. Game one is set for 7 p.m. Friday night, followed by a 6 p.m. start time on Saturday for game two.
MSU and Penn State are currently tied for second in the Big Ten Standings with 25 points apiece, both one point behind Ohio State, making this a critical weekend for both teams. The Buckeyes are on the road against Minnesota this weekend.
“Being tied with Penn State going into this weekend is exciting,” coach Danton Cole said. “This is where we wanted to be and playing meaningful games this time of year. (We’re) real excited and I know our guys are fired up. It should be a great weekend.”
The two teams met back in early November, playing to a series split in Happy Valley. The Spartans won the first game 2-0 behind a 48-save shutout from senior goaltender John Lethemon, only to fall to the Nittany Lions 6-4 the next day in the team’s first conference games of the season. Both teams have come a long way since then, collecting statement wins while also suffering disappointing losses.
The Nittany Lions are coming off an underwhelming weekend, unable to pick up a win in Ann Arbor against Michigan. After losing the first game 6-0 to the Wolverines, PSU was able to salvage a 4-4 tie in game two, but would ultimately fall in overtime and fail to obtain the extra point.
Senior forward Sam Saliba has been on a tear for the Spartans as of late, scoring in five of his last six games, placing him fourth on the team in points (14) and second in goals (9). Cole moved Saliba out of his natural position of center, shifting him to right wing so he could play on the top line with junior Mitchell Lewandowski and senior Patrick Khodorenko. The trio have been playing well together and Saliba is reaping the benefits.
“He’s an older guy and can make some mature plays,” Cole said of Saliba. “He’s smart defensively and obviously he’s putting the puck in the net now, which is sorely needed.”
The Spartans continue to dominate when shorthanded, having successfully killed off eight straight penalties, and their .917 penalty kill percentage ranks first in the Big Ten. However, MSU will look to stay out of the box this weekend, as the Nittany Lions have the second best power play in the country with a 28.6% success rate. Penn State also comes into the weekend averaging 3.83 goals per game, good for fourth in the country.
Shutting down PSU forwards Nate Sucese and Evan Barratt will be a point of emphasis this weekend, as those two have paved the way for the Nittany Lions offense thus far. Both players have 28 points to lead their team, collecting nine goals and 19 assists each.
Cole knows this weekend is a big one for his program, but wants his team to remain focused, citing Bill Belichick and the Patriots as an example of how to remain in the present and not get too caught up in the future.
“Mentally, that’s where I want our guys to be,” Cole said. “Friday night is our biggest game of the year, and (then) at 9:15 on Friday night, Saturday night is (our biggest game of the year). I think if you get too far ahead mentally, if you get too far ahead of today, you can really start losing sight of stuff. ... I think the best way to look at it is (that) it’s an unbelievable opportunity. The door is open, you just have to push on it and take it.”