In a collegiate sport such as men’s ice hockey, every opportunity to step onto a big stage is essential to the growth of the sport, alongside the competing programs. Penn State is presented with a unique opportunity to grow its hockey brand. The Nittany Lions will take on the Michigan Wolverines Saturday night at the world-famous Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Penn State and Michigan will join some rare company, being two of only four Big Ten teams to play at Madison Square Garden, and the only two to play twice at the venue. In the previous matchup at Madison Square Garden two seasons ago, the Wolverines defeated the Nittany Lions 6-3.
Since then, the teams have jockeyed for superiority on both the Big Ten and national stage. Penn State has made two consecutive NCAA tournament appearances but have yet to make its first Frozen Four.
Michigan, meanwhile, qualified for the NCAA tournament in 2018 after missing out the previous season, and managed to make a run to the Frozen Four. Both teams come into this huge contest on the outside of the tournament picture, making the stakes that much higher in what is already one of the largest games for the sport of college hockey this season.
Penn State has been on a downward spiral the second half of the season. The Nittany Lions have dropped from their perennial top ten status all the way down to no. 20 in the current pairwise rankings. Thursday’s 5-1 loss in Ann Arbor saw the Nittany Lions drop their fifth loss in the last six Big Ten contests.
With a fellow tournament helpful such as Michigan opposing them, it is important for the Nittany Lions to secure victory on Saturday. Penn State will need its brightest stars to step onto the big stage and show the growing college hockey fanbase what the program is capable of.
The Nittany Lions will first need to clean up their sloppy play. Penn State has taken numerous unwarranted penalties over the past few series which have costed them dearly. Penn State took 16 penalties alone in last weekend’s series against Ohio State. The Buckeyes capitalized, scoring six of their ten goals in the series with the man advantage against a winded Penn State penalty kill.
Michigan is no stranger to drawing out Penn State’s reckless nature either. The Wolverines scored four unanswered goals in the third period to defeat the Nittany Lions at Pegula Ice Arena earlier in the season. It’s no coincidence Penn State sent men to the box three times in the final frame of that contest either.
The Nittany Lions offense has also fallen off in the second half. A force to be reckoned with earlier in the season has been held to only one goal in three of the last six games after scoring multiple times in each of the first 19 contests to open the season.
There is no doubt Penn State is missing injured forward Aarne Talvitie during this stretch, but his loss has coincided with a poor offensive philosophy. The constant dump and chase tactics utilized over the past few series have made zone entry a nightmare for Penn State. It also adds pressure to what is already a systematically weak defense deployed by coach Guy Gadowsky.
A pair of Nittany Lions have also gone through a cold stretch at the wrong time. Hobey Baker Award nominees Evan Barratt and Alex Limoges have only combined for five points over the past seven games. Two of college hockey’s leading scorers in the first half must break out of their coinciding slumps to breath life back into the Penn State attack.
Regardless of how you spin it, Saturday’s contest in the building deemed “the world’s most famous arena” is a pivotal one for both the success and growth of Penn State hockey. The Nittany Lions will hope to seize the opportunity to gain leverage on the rest of the Big Ten, especially one of their most fearsome rivals from Ann Arbor.
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