After a tough split at home against the Michigan Wolverines, Penn State looks to bounce back this weekend against what seems like a cupcake opponent in the Mercyhurst Lakers.
ROSTER / SCHEDULE
7:00 p.m. ET – FRIDAY, NOV. 3
PEGULA ICE ARENA
UNIVERSITY PARK, PENNSYLVANIA
7:00 p.m. ET – SATURDAY, NOV. 4
PEGULA ICE ARENA
UNIVERSITY PARK, PENNSYLVANIA
|Game 1: GAMETRACKER|
|Game 2: GAMETRACKER|
|Listen: Puck Podcast Episode 2.3|
|Read: Penn State Outlasts Michigan in OT|
The Lakers (2-2-2) are a team the Nittany Lions (4-4-0, 2-2-0 B1G) should beat handily to cap off the current homestand. This will be only the second and third time that these two have faced each other, with Penn State earning a 7-0 victory over the Lakers last season. That game, funnily enough, was the catalyst to the Lions' record setting 13-game winning streak, a program best.
Mercyhurst's record is littered with underwhelming performances to not-so-great teams, with two ties versus Holy Cross and a split against both Ferris State and Bentley. Just as well, its road record is a measly 1-1-2 coming into Happy Valley. Penn State really has no choice but to sweep if it wants to get back into its regular winning ways and keep its Big Ten and NCAA tourney goals in sight – especially coming off of a difficult split with Michigan and that awful AIC loss. With question marks surrounding Andrew Sturtz, Kevin Kerr, and Brandon Biro's health, the Lions will have to continue finding offensive production elsewhere in the roster. As they did in the Michigan series, the Limoges-Barratt-Folkes line – if Coach Gadowsky chooses to keep it together – could provide the spark Penn State needs in Mercyhurst's zone.
But first, let's take a more in-depth look at what to expect from the Lakers in this week's scouting report.
The Lakers are returning their top-eight scorers from last season, which includes reigning 35-point scorer (9 goals, 26 assists) and co-captain, Derek Barach. He and Taylor Best both have five points accrued on the season, while Jonathan Charbonneau is tied for fourth in scoring on the team with three points. Other forwards to watch for are co-captain Jack Riley and Matthew Whittaker, who've garnered four points each this season. This core of forwards are responsible for 12 of Mercyhurst's 16 goals on the year, and I expect them to continue leading the scoring charge. It's worth noting that Mercyhurst's power-play unit is extremely effective. The team currently ranks fourth in the NCAA with a PP conversion rate of .333, going 11/33 in its chances. That means a whopping 11 of the Lakers' 16 goals have come on the power-play. Penn State will have to stay out of the box to keep this opportunistic group off the ice.
Leading the entire Lakers team is Lester Lancaster with six points (one goal, five assists). He's also the only guy on the team that boasts a point-per-game résumé so far this season. His skill set seems to be at its most productive while he's setting up his teammates to score, and given his assists margin, he's quite good at it. But Lancaster is also noted for flinging pucks at the net; the junior currently holds a team-high 24 shots-on-goal. Joseph Duszak has also boosted his team with helpers, connecting with his teammates on four goals in their six games.
Also making his return is Mercyhurst's top goaltender from last year Brandon Wildung, who's had a really great start to the 2017-18 season. He's a dude I'm slightly worried about in this series. The senior has posted a .933 save percentage and has only allowed an average of 2.13 goals against in 2017. The only thing hampering him to this point is the deflating effort of the offense in front of him; one that is only tallying about 2.7 goals per game. Wildung needs a little more help on the scoreboard to start racking up wins, especially against a Penn State team that's averaging almost four goals per contest. Regardless, he's been the Lakers' go-to goalie and has started all six of their games. I expect we'll see him in net for the full series in Pegula this weekend.
Player to Watch For
It's got to be goaltender Brandon Wildung. Right now, he's undoubtedly the Lakers' best player, and may be the reason this team has any wins at all with their low goals scored per game average. I think if Penn State has any issues with Mercyhurst (and let's pray it doesn't because, like, c'mon), Wildung will be the source of the team's frustration. However, I would very much like if the Lions hang a Hockey Tuddy on the Lakers in both games. A big couple of wins, especially against an inferior team, are much-needed at this point in the season.
I have a lot of confidence that the Nittany Lions pull off the sweep at home. The only thing that may shake things up is how well Wildung plays in net and if Penn State's defense can improve its backing and gap coverage in front of Peyton Jones. The aforementioned injuries will hurt the Lions a bit, but I expect their big players (Smirnov, Berger, Hults, Hamilton, etc.) to fill in any holes offensively.
The sweep holds true with a spanking of the Lakers somewhere around 6-2 on Friday and a closer game at 5-3 or so on Saturday night – just a few hours after Penn State football brings home the Land Grant Trophy.