Penn State men’s hockey has begun to establish itself as a formidable adversary at the Division-I level. The past two seasons have seen the Nittany Lions clinch a Big Ten tournament title and consecutive NCAA tournament berths. However, if Penn State wants to continue trending in the right direction, it will have to establish more consistency in Big Ten play to improve its resume.
After a disappointing split at home last weekend with Michigan State, the Nittany Lions now sit at No. 13 in the USCHO.com poll. They’re on the bubble and far from comfortably securing a spot in the tournament.
Penn State needs every resume-boosting win it can get, especially in a conference full of parity like the Big Ten. This weekend, No. 4 Ohio State comes into Hockey Valley as the top dog in the Big Ten standings. Here are a few x-factors in what can serve as a make-or-break series for coach Guy Gadowsky and the Nittany Lions’ season.
The productivity of standout forwards Evan Barratt and Alex Limoges has not been quite up to par in the second half of the season. While it is certain that both players will eventually return to form, other players have had to fill the void in what is still a lethal and deep Penn State offense. The trio of Brandon Biro, Chase Berger and Alec Marsh have done just that.
Biro started the second half of the season with a highlight reel goal against Minnesota, where he sniped the top of the net as he was falling, tripped by a defenseman. Add that to his five assists in the past two series, and you can see that Biro has led the way for Penn State’s offense the past two series.
Chase Berger is the captain of this Nittany Lions team. He has led by example as of late, with three goals in the past two series, including a two-goal effort against Michigan State on Saturday to lead Penn State back from an early 3-1 deficit. Berger’s leadership qualities will also be pivotal for the Nittany Lions against their toughest challenge of the season.
Marsh may be the least productive of the trio, with only a goal and an assist in the past two series. However, his play has remained crucial for the effectiveness of this line. Marsh’s ability to win pucks in tough areas and get them to Biro, Berger or even the defensemen to create scoring chances has allowed his teammates and the Penn State offense to continue flourishing.
This line will no doubt have a tough time maintaining productivity this weekend. Ohio State has the top scoring defense in the Big Ten, conceding an average of only 2.18 goals per game.
Buckeye goaltender Tommy Nappier also leads the conference with a 1.58 goals against average and a .945 save percentage. It will be crucial for the Marsh-Berger-Biro line, along with the rest of the Nittany Lions attack to funnel pucks at the net and cause trouble for Nappier in front of the net. Nappier’s 329 shots faced on the season is fourth-lowest among Big Ten goaltenders with at least 600 minutes on ice.
Realistically, with the performance Penn State can expect from its defense, week in and week out, goaltending must be superb for the Nittany Lions to salvage at least a split this weekend.
Luckily, junior Peyton Jones has offered flashes of that as of late. Jones has no doubt been one of Penn State’s most improved players throughout the season. A goaltending situation which looked shaky in the early stages has been solidified by the Nittany Lions most experienced backstop.
Jones posted a save percentage below .900 heading into the midseason break. However, in the past two series, he has raised his save percentage up to .904.
Despite conceding a few savable shots last weekend against Michigan State, Jones was under constant pressure from the Spartans and displayed excellent lateral ability to make a few huge stops for his team when they needed him most.
Jones will need to come up with huge stops this weekend and continue his sensational second half play, especially with a quick turnaround between Friday’s 7 p.m. ET puck drop, and Saturday’s 3 p.m. ET puck drop.
The deciding factor of both games this weekend may come down to whose team gets more opportunities on the power play.
Ohio State currently has the two top power play forwards in the Big Ten – senior Mason Jobst and junior Tanner Laczynski. Jobst has 13 points through seven goals and six assists. Meanwhile, Laczynski has 11 points through a pair of goals and nine assists.
In addition, the Buckeyes have the second highest net power play in the Big Ten at a +17 clip on the season.
Penn State’s demise in conference play this season has often been through taking untimely penalties and going on to concede on the resulting power play. It will be up to the Nittany Lions to play a far more disciplined game this weekend to keep Ohio State’s efficient unit off the ice.
The Nittany Lions’ saving grace may be their own power play. It ranks first in the Big Ten, converting on 27.8 percent of opportunities.
Penn State will look to take advantage of every opportunity it can against a Buckeyes’ penalty kill ranking fifth in the conference with a success rate of 79 percent. However, the Nittany Lions will have to be careful not to concede opportunities even with the man advantage.
In the series between these two teams earlier in the season, Ohio State scored three shorthanded goals against the Nittany Lions.
It is a crucial series for Penn State hockey against one of the best teams in the nation. However, if the Nittany Lions have proven anything in their time at the Division-I level, it is that they can defy expectations and competing in one of the toughest conferences the sport has to offer.
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