With a stellar first half of the season, as well as coming off of an exhibition win against the United States National Team Development Program (USNTDP), the Spartans are headed down to Penn State for their final game against the Nittany Lions in the regular season.
The Spartans finally have four of their star players -- Trey Augustine, Isaac Howard, Tommi Mannisto and Maxim Strbak -- back on the team after they played in the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Juniors Tournament; the team is at full strength and ready to play.
Freshman goaltender Trey Augustine was one of the four individuals who played in the tournament and as he comes back to the United States to play with Michigan State, he is optimistic about being ready to go by Friday.
“Just trying to take it day by day and make sure I’m ready to go,” Augustine said. “Obviously it’s pretty tough flying back from Europe, but we’re ready to go this weekend.”
With excellent performances in the last few months of 2023, including a split-series against Penn State at home, the Spartans are looking for an opposite outcome: to sweep the Nittany Lions at Pegula Ice Arena and take back the first place standing in the conference, just five points behind Wisconsin.
“I think we’ve grown as a group but I think (Penn State) have too,” head coach Adam Nightingale said during a press conference. “I think that's part of our job as coaches to help the group and the guys buy into it and I think that was our second Big Ten weekend (against Penn State), so we’re expecting them to be a better team.”
With lots of talk of second-half season hockey, teams have made improvements – including the Spartans and their Nittany Lion opponents – and the Spartans know that this will be the toughest part of the season with more high stakes.
“I think we talk about second-half hockey, and teams are tighter defensively,” Nightingale said. “It’s hard to create offense, you have to be tighter defensively, you have to play with discipline and Penn State as a program is a top 20 program, their staff does a really great job there.”
With differences being noticed in Michigan State’s performance, there are still things being looked at to improve through the last 14 games of the regular season.
“I think controlling the game and doing a better job of limiting the rush chances, I think we can do a better job at that,” Nightingale said. “We’ve talked about discipline too. I think we play the game hard and we play the game aggressively, but making sure we’re trying to eliminate some of the stick penalties where we’re not moving our feet.”
Having played Penn State already once in the season, the team has been preparing endlessly at practice through the week for the series with hopeful outcomes.
Sophomore forward Joey Larson, who is leading the team in points with 21, is ready for this weekend and believes that this past week has prepared them well against Penn State.
“I think we feel prepared,” Larson said. “We had a good week of practice and we’re ready to go down there and hopefully win some games.”
The Nittany Lions sit at 2-5-3 in the Big Ten conference, coming off of an out-of-conference win against Army on Jan. 6 with a score of 7-6.
The most recent Big Ten game the team played was at Wisconsin, where they were swept by the Badgers during the away series with scores of 3-6 and 1-4.
Penn State is currently sitting in the United States College Hockey Online polls at No. 20, one of the five Big Ten teams in the top 20 in the weekly polls.
Friday, Jan. 12 starts the first game of the series at 7 p.m. streaming on Big Ten Plus and Saturday's game is at 4:30 p.m. and will be streamed on Big Ten Network as the Spartans hunt for yet another sweep in the season.
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